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03 Nov 2023

UK in the world

Tim Oliver reflects on whether Brexit has been a ‘critical juncture’ for the UK’s role in the world, suggesting that because of a lack of coherence and ideological clarity Brexit has not meant a substantial break from the past in this respect. This is one of three blogs that summarises recent research on UK foreign policy and Brexit.

The effects of the 2016 referendum have been so profound that it has been described as a ‘critical juncture’ comparable to the 1945 general election that led to Clement Attlee’s Labour government bringing in the ‘post-war consensus’, and the 1979 general election that led to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government upending that consensus.

A critical juncture refers to a period of significant change that happens following a triggering event (such as the 2016 vote) and during which decisions are taken by key political actors that have an enduring legacy. The sudden nature of this change contrasts with progress through slow, continuous evolution.

However, this does not apply to the UK’s international role. In contrast to the agendas of Attlee and Thatcher, Brexit has lacked coherence and ideological clarity. This has thwarted attempts by leading political actors to use it as a means to pick a role for Britain in the world that sticks. As a result, the confusion that surrounded the UK’s role in the world before the 2016 referendum has persisted. This becomes evident when looking at debates about Britain’s post-Brexit roles.

First, there are those who wanted Brexit to mean the UK going down a more nationally focused road, becoming on the one hand a politically isolationist ‘Switzerland with nukes’ or business obsessed ‘Singapore on Thames’. But whether it’s the government’s 2021 Integrated Review or the Labour Party’s ‘Britain Reconnected’ proposals for UK foreign policy, Britain’s political elite have shown no desire to embrace a more limited or narrower role in the world.

Strong support for Ukraine among both the British public and the political class can be taken as a sign of wider opposition to isolationism. The economic costs of isolating Russia show that a strict business-first approach will not always prevail. However, public, and political discourse about international aid, asylum and even the vote to Leave the EU itself point to the possibility that while the UK might not retreat or narrow its focus, Britain will be more circumspect in what it tries to do.

Then there are those who envisage Britain playing a leading global role. Britain’s global role could be framed through a ‘deep and special relationship’ with the EU, to quote Theresa May in 2017. Future prime ministers may well seek to turn the Trade and Cooperation Agreement into something more comprehensive to underpin a more European focused role in the world. That would require on the UK side a sustained pro-European mood in British politics. While on the EU side it would require both incentives to reopen the TCA and a willingness to trust the UK. Britain’s history as ‘an awkward partner’ when inside the EU points to how difficult this would be.

The UK could deepen its existing special relationship with the USA. Critics of such an approach refer to this as turning the UK into the ‘51st state’. To its defenders, however, it would create an ‘economic alliance’ to complement the defence and security core of the existing special relationship. While some form of UK-US trade pact is not out of the question, concerns about what a wider trade and economic relationship could mean for the NHS or agriculture  point to public unease at lowering existing UK standards, largely aligned as they are to the EU, in favour of closer relations with the USA. That the US Congress is likely to drive as hard a bargain as the EU in any trade negotiations, makes a closer economic relationship with the USA as difficult as building a deeper political relationship with the EU.

Could the UK instead pursue a role that takes a middle way that avoids the rock of relations with the EU and the hard place of relations with the USA? The dilemma of being split between the US and EU means ideas about the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere have once again made headlines. The hollowness of a Commonwealth that lacks any political unity shows the dilemma of a US-EU balancing act will continue to bedevil British foreign policy.

If some of these possibilities seem far-fetched, then perhaps we are expecting too much of Brexit’s critical juncture for the UK’s role in the world. 1945 and 1979 were decisive breaks because each saw a government elected with a clear programme that meant a break with the past. Attlee and Thatcher won their respective elections with clear ideological agendas and manifestos to implement. Their positions included clear roles for the UK in the world – leading the transition from Empire to Commonwealth for Attlee, and the pursuit of free-market economics with the USA and EU in the face of the Soviet Union for Thatcher.

The Brexit referendum seemingly heralded such a moment but other than the negative sentiment of leave, the more positive agenda of what to do with the UK’s newfound status has been found wanting. The result is that the UK’s search for a role remains as uncertain and confused as it was before 2016.

By Dr Tim Oliver, Senior Lecturer,  Loughborough University London.

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