Securitising Openness: A Central Challenge of the Global Britain Project

The Global Britain project is being forged in the context of a deep consciousness of the discontent that had taken hold amongst many citizens towards the boundless energies of globalisation. Like their counterparts in other advanced liberal democracies, a sizeable proportion of the British population had come to feel vulnerable from the sense of being battered by the winds of a force that their national government was either unwilling nor unable to control. When, in 2005, Tony Blair spoke of the inevitability of closer global integration and connectivity – “You might as well debate whether Autumn should follow Summer” – the British people accepted the premise of the new political settlement; until the financial crisis, and dynamic new parties and campaigns, came along to challenge the need for acquiescence to this apparent fait accompli.

The fact that the UK’s foreign policy is being defined in the aftermath of the seismic referendum – and the unusual period of politics that has followed in its wake – dramatically alters the framework in which it is examined, and the scope and nature of our ambitions. As I have previously discussed, the identity component at the heart of the Global Britain project requires the interrogation of not only our present state and intentions for the future, but also to come to an understanding about our past. Here too, the fact that this exercise is taking place at this particular moment, where an essential component of the social polarisation shaping domestic politics centres on the absence of a collective view about the value and morality of our history, complicates the task at hand.

The depth and breadth of the challenge to governance in Western liberal nations in the 21st Century is clear, as we move through the growing pains of a great democratic experiment – seeking to build prosperous economies and robust leadership on the collective consent of increasingly empowered, increasingly diverse societies. Within this new landscape, foreign policy has become progressively embedded in, and contingent on, domestic political constraints – and linked to the expression of domestic political identities.

The central challenge at the heart of the Global Britain project centres on how to build public consent for the openness and connectivity required to underpin our economic prosperity, to enable us to fulfil our obligations as responsible members of the international community, and to advance and champion causes important to our values, and global peace and security. While Britons have traditionally been instinctively more inclined towards openness than many of their counterparts in other advanced democracies, their concerns about the asymmetrical benefits of globalisation and its consequences for communities and the agency of the nation state necessitate a shift in gear in both the substance and communications of policy-making.

The mission is therefore to ‘securitise openness’ – to authentically persuade citizens that the things they value and which provide anchors of belonging and community to them, will be tended to and upheld. And therefore, to enable Britons to feel confident that the various forms of global engagement we pursue, and the ways in which we make ourselves open to the world, will not become mutually exclusive to their own safety. It is, in effect, a careful balancing act – reinforcing each act of openness with an act of security. Ideally, reaching a point where we can be ambitious with our global role, because the role itself contributes to citizens’ sense of pride, sense of self, and shared purpose.

While, during the Corbyn era, the Labour Party’s international platform increasingly appeared to weaken its commitment to some of the issues most salient to Britons as part of a shared national identity – such as patriotism, community, the monarchy and the armed forces – while also appearing ambivalent towards some of the aspects of international engagement most valued by Britons – such as our membership of NATO – the Party’s new leadership have made clear that they recognise the practical and symbolic importance of these domestic and foreign policy pillars.

In his speech at the Labour Party’s digital party conference this past week, Leader of the Opposition Kier Starmer spoke frequently about Labour’s renewed commitment to delivering ‘security’ on a range of levels. Starmer explicitly argued that, “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security”, but also mentioned other types of domestic security as part of one singular security framework – jobs, communities and finances – demonstrating the extent to which the Party now considers these to be a connected suite of issues. The appointment of Lisa Nandy – who has championed both a ‘progressive internationalism’ and the plight of ‘left-behind’ towns – as Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, has clearly been instrumental in cementing the Party’s thinking around the fusion of the domestic and international spheres.

The Government has also been examining how to embed public engagement into the bricks and mortar of the Global Britain project via the Integrated Review, considering what a more ‘inclusive’ approach to foreign policy-making could look like in practice. There are also serious questions being asked about a meaningful integration of the Levelling Up and Global Britain projects – a relief for those of us who had been concerned that they might fall into competition. Bringing these two together in a more cohesive manner, perhaps even through a dedicated team focused on policy collaboration within the Cabinet Office, would provide a solid underpinning to the strategic endeavour to ‘open with one hand, secure with the other’ – allowing for a greater coordination of policy announcements, and embedding both a stronger spirit of security in our foreign policy, and a stronger spirit of openness in the domestic renewal project.

In some significant ways, the pandemic has hastened thinking around this intersection – compelling focus, as it has, on our national resilience and the areas where international cooperation can prove most valuable. The tensions we and many other liberal nations are experiencing in our relationship with China, and the increasing awareness of our reliance on its supply chains and manufacturing capabilities, provide grist to the mill to efforts seeking to invest in these functions at home. The ‘D-10’ alliance could begin to consider how best to balance market and state investments to challenge China’s dominance in large-scale competitive tenders, unleashing a new era of innovation and strengthening our collective security around critical national infrastructure. Over time, these sorts of endeavours should be able to provide employment opportunities, help to revitalise communities, and allow us to become less reactive in some areas of our foreign policy-making.

Despite the anxieties that have grown over recent years around the Brexit project as a potential moment of ‘turning inward’, the Government has been keen to emphasise that they are prepared to strike a balance with their generous economic regeneration policies and tougher immigration framework, permitting them in turn to pursue an open and connected foreign policy. The Integrated Review, due sometime in November, will help to reveal the extent to which this stated ambition may be achieved. Just as pertinent, however, will be the progress of its domestic renewal project, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and its strain on government finances. It would be useful for foreign policy watchers to regard these missions as symbiotic, to some degree, as it is in the complete picture that they collectively provide, that we will best be able to discern the true scope and nature of the Global Britain project.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.