Global Britain and Levelling Up are Natural Bedfellows

It is unusual for a government to simultaneously pursue two revolutions, but these are unusual times and Britain has, after all, been in a state of revolution since the nation went to the ballot box almost five years ago. The ambitions and grievances that underpinned the successful Leave vote in the Brexit Referendum cut to the heart of the UK’s democratic functioning, but the consequences of the outcome for the UK’s foreign policy have undoubtedly been just as significant. Two projects have emerged in the scorched earth, the Levelling Up agenda to address inequalities in regional economic performance, and the Global Britain agenda to redefine the nation’s role in the world.

At first glance, they may feel to be operating in rather different spheres. Foreign policy has, after all, long operated in a rather opaque, impenetrable sphere of decision-making, seemingly detached from the ordinary lives of citizens, and an afterthought in electoral politics. In the past five years, however, everything has changed. Britons’ engagement in foreign affairs has skyrocketed by around 20 percentage points since the EU Referendum. As the BFPG’s social research makes clear, international attitudes and instincts now increasingly cleave onto citizens’ domestic political identities. Decisions about the UK’s international role, the values we promote, and our global relationships, ultimately become an exercise in defining who we are. Global Britain is, therefore, a deeply political project.

In the early days of the Johnson Government, there was some concern that these two projects may in fact fall into direct competition. Alarm bells rang out when the decision was made to convene the Prime Minister’s new Cabinet and kick off plans for the Levelling Up agenda, at the exact moment Britain should have been sitting alongside its allies at the Munich Security Conference. But a year is a long time in politics, and geopolitics too these days. Last month, the Prime Minister himself enthusiastically addressed the audience at Munich.

Three events appear to have fundamentally shifted internal thinking. The first is the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sharpened minds to consider the full depth and breadth of what it means for a society, an economy and a democracy to be truly resilient. The second is the increasing alarm towards China’s behaviour as a member of the global community, and the threats posed by authoritarian states towards less visible aspects of our national security. The third is the growing awareness of the political challenges that the Government will face in securing support for an ambitious international policy, when large swathes of the population remain unconvinced of the benefits of our openness and their stake in the globalised economy.

A year on, there now appears to be a burgeoning recognition that it makes perfect sense to combine our projects of domestic and international renewal, as future-proofing our national resilience must be secured from both the inside-out and the outside-in.

We now live in an age of ‘grey-zone’ warfare, in which the hard lines we once placed between our economy, our democracy, our society, and our national security, no longer stand. Our strategic rivals make no such distinctions in their efforts to identify vulnerabilities, and we must therefore ensure all Britons, all British industries and British institutions are not only protected from such intrusions, but also play an active role in advancing our defensive capabilities.

Fortunately, the UK is in possession of specific expertise, resources and human capital, which will ensure we are well-placed to respond to these threats. Our intelligence services and digital defensive capabilities are already exceptional by world standards, which will allow us to adapt more easily to this evolving demands of this new era. Our arsenal is further boosted by our exceptional universities and research institutions and a thriving culture of digital innovation – not to mention our highly respected legal sector, our expertise as architects of global governance, and our rich bounty of soft power assets.

Building on these inherent advantages is not only the best means of strengthening our national security capabilities, but will also help to germinate new economic opportunities, which are both profitable and sustainable in the longer term. In particular, investment in developing regional technology and innovation hubs around our world-leading universities, and streamlining the commercialisation of research, could help to bridge the persistent ‘town and gown’ divide and create valuable new local jobs in future-proofed industries.

The intersection of a third project – tackling the global threat of climate change – could also serve as further connective tissue between Levelling Up and Global Britain. The pandemic has devastated many industries and communities, but there is a generational opportunity in ensuring the economic recovery is ‘green’, to also address some of the most persistent structural issues with the nation’s existing economic model. The germination of good jobs in clean energy industries around the UK will enable us to speak with an authentic global voice in our leadership role on climate action, ‘walking the walk’ of our commitment by ensuring it is underpinned by a bottom-up as well as top-down level of support – soaked through to the very core of the British economy.

Britain should also work more closely with our allies to realise the benefits of these investments to the collective security of open societies. The heated political debate around Huawei in the UK and amongst our global partners has particularly highlighted the urgency around the development of home-grown technology and infrastructure hardware, to challenge the dominance of China and other authoritarian states in competitive tenders. Having experienced an awakening around the need to update the definition of our ‘critical national infrastructure’, Britain should team up with our trusted allies to pool resources and direct the full power of both the market and the state to fast-track the emergence of competitive liberal alternatives.

It is clear that the fusing of our national and international resilience projects is a platform through which to strengthen our security, rebalance our economy, create productive new centres of regional growth, and ensure we lead from the front in embracing the opportunities that decarbonisation can bring. The complexity of these intersections has led the BFPG to call for the creation of a dedicated unit and ministerial post to oversee the integrated resilience agenda. It is also true that there is tangible democratic dividend to be gained in ensuring that a greater proportion of British citizens feel they hold a legitimate stake in the nation’s future.

The BFPG’s research into the formation of public opinion about foreign policy makes clear that there is a strong relationship between economic security and perceived democratic agency, and the propensity to support an active and ambitious foreign policy. Renewing our domestic political settlement provides the best possible foundations on which a greater share of citizens will come to see our openness and connectivity as a source of optimism, opportunity and resilience. In strengthening the public consent that underpins our foreign policy, the United Kingdom can in turn speak with a more confident and authentic voice on the world stage.

Levelling Up and Global Britain were born from the same seismic event and, after a period of false competition, are naturally coming back together as the natural bedfellows they are. This holistic new conception of our resilience should be embraced equally by those who have a stake in our domestic renewal and those who champion an ambitious new era for British foreign policy. After all, a strong, prosperous and united Britain, with a well-functioning, inclusive democracy, is the best foundation on which we will be able to extend and advance these values and conditions throughout the world.

The BFPG is currently working on a research paper focusing on exploring the tangible links between the Global Britain and Levelling Up agendas. It will be published in the Spring of 2021.

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Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.