17 May Jeremy Hunt’s Mansion House Speech: On Manoeuvres?
On Monday the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech at the Mansion House in London on the UK after Brexit. The speech was noted in particular for straying beyond the traditional limits of foreign policy into defence and domestic issues. But whilst it is no secret that Mr Hunt is one of the many contenders to be the next Conservative leader, and perhaps Prime Minister, the speech was perhaps more valuable in signposting the growing recognition that the UK’s international and domestic prosperity and security priorities are intimately bound up with each other. Whilst the top level political disfunction of the UK continues, there is an important paradigm shift taking place inside government. Whilst Brexit and the political fallout is somewhat of a catalyst, the trends driving this have been emerging for some time, including the successes & failures of globalisation, technology and social changes. This now includes an increasingly widely accessed but confused and atomised information environment, especially vulnerable to insurgent, extreme and malign agendas.
Through this prism, the three areas of focus for Jeremy Hunt’s speech on the UK’s prospects for national renewal – the economy, hard power and democratic renewal – have more of an international focus than a pure focus on his leadership ambitions might suggest.
This may have some significant implications for the shape of the domestic economy at home, and where possible should be leveraged to invest into those very communities that have felt alienated. This is all the more important because it is these communities who are particularly vulnerable to populist or subversive messaging. But quality jobs and economic investment, though critical, are not enough. More respect for and engagement with perspectives from across the UK in discussion of critical national issues, including foreign policy issues, will become increasingly key for viable and sustainable policy making. This is important if our democracy is to become robust enough to resist the siren calls, particularly of foreign powers and private interests seeking to weaken the UK at home and its support for the rules-based order abroad.
The consolation, and perhaps irony, is that despite the top line political chaos, the UK sits in an enviable geopolitical position across a series of islands off an overall remarkably benign, stable and likeminded continent. On the other side of the ocean are other close friends and partners. The great strategic challenger to the biggest of our partners is China. The UK can afford to play the role of constructive, principled and robust broker alongside others as the world responds to this. The most immediate military threat to the UK is from a declining and unstable Russia, still possessed of some formidable and advanced military capability.
It is here that the UK requires the most investment in hard power, but there are opportunities too. The UK will soon be in possession of two of the most advanced aircraft carriers in the world that with right investment at home in advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies, could provide platforms for a formidable combination of air, sea and subsurface capabilities. With scaled up defence investment, in partnership with regional allies such as Norway and Canada, the UK could preserve its global reach, but focus on securing the North Atlantic and Western Hemisphere of the Arctic. Not only would this save the US tens of billions of dollars to be redirected to the Pacific and elsewhere, but it would secure for the UK a sphere of unilateral capability around the UK homeland unknown for decades.
The UK cannot and should not isolate itself completely from the dramatic changes unfolding around the world. Indeed the UK, for its own and global benefit, needs to remain an active champion of an open, interconnected and rules based international system. However, to ensure it can continue to do so from a position of strength and security we require responses that cut across the traditional divisions between domestic and foreign policy. Whatever Mr Hunt’s motivations in making such a cross cutting speech at the Mansion House, his reference to the interplay between our economy, hard power and democratic culture points to the fact that consideration of the implications of this are being considered elsewhere in government. Despite the turmoil at the top, we should prepare for some potentially significant changes in how the UK domestically is organised to meet the wider global challenges we are facing in years to come.