Britain and the post-Brexit world: still searching for a role


Brexiters promised that leaving the EU would enable Britain to embrace a new global role. Arthur Snell explains why, despite the fillip of its support for Ukraine, the UK is struggling to establish a place in the world order.

Teaser Image Caption
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, in May 2023.

In 1962, with Britain smarting from the humiliations of failed overseas interventions and its economy unproductive, riven by high inflation and a weak currency, US diplomat Dean Acheson remarked that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.”

At the time, the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was desperately trying to join the European Common Market. Acheson agreed with Macmillan that this was Britain’s best bet, even if it would fail because of French president Charles De Gaulle’s veto a month later. Nonetheless, America’s enthusiasm for British membership of the EU remained a clear policy position over 50 years later, as Barack Obama made clear in 2016 during the referendum campaign.

So it was something of a surprise to many internationally-minded Britons when the country voted to leave the European Union, with an intention, according to Brexit’s advocates, to reposition itself more closely with the US and the wider world. The harsh trade realities of Brexit are well-known: there is little prospect (or enthusiasm in Washington DC) for a free trade deal between the UK and the US. Brexit has complicated Britain’s trading relations with Europe, and its first major free trade deals after leaving the bloc, with Australia and New Zealand, appear to have been rushed through and given away “too much, for far too little”, in the words of a Brexit-supporting former agriculture minister.

But beyond trade deals, what is the geopolitical perspective of ‘Global Britain’? Brexit was supposed to reposition Britain away from Europe, with its declining economies and its lack of strategic autonomy, and allow a nimbler, more versatile country to make alliances in its own interest on a global stage. At the heart of this new positioning would be relations with the two great global powers, the US and China.

Not so special any more

With the United States, this would all be about the ‘special relationship’. Unfortunately, British politicians failed to listen to the rest of Acheson’s speech: “Britain's attempt to play a separate power role - that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States - this role is about played out.” Helmut Schmidt put it in more succinct terms: this is “a relationship so special that only one side knows it exists.” The brutal truth was that, for many countries outside Europe, including the US, Britain’s attraction was because of its membership of the EU, not in spite of it.

Even more unfortunately for Britain, the timing of Brexit was not propitious. On the heels of the vote, the election of Donald Trump put incredible strains on the transatlantic alliance, with the new president unconvinced by the utility of NATO. Trump, with his Scottish mother, was perfectly able to talk of “huge deals” that he wanted to make with the UK, but his approach was entirely transactional and he was allergic to strategic alliances. Trump also started a trade war with an increasingly assertive China under the neo-imperialist grip of Xi Jinping. Britain’s own relations with China took a nosedive after Xi ended the democratic experiment in Hong Kong.

Plans to incorporate Huawei equipment into Britain’s 5G phone network appeared incompatible with security assurances given to Five Eyes intelligence allies (the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, key pillars of Britain’s post-Brexit security architecture). And once COVID had shown up China’s tendency to obfuscation and misinformation, the relationship with China had to be completely rethought as a case of risk management rather than strategic opportunity.

One aspect of British policy which ought to give it global scope is its relationship with Commonwealth, the club of largely former British colonies that ranges from India, Canada and Australia to small island developing states in the Caribbean and Pacific. The Commonwealth has never been an economic bloc (largely because Britain decided in the 1960s that it couldn’t afford that, something that Acheson noted) and is supposedly a pro-democracy soft-power network. This of course has its limitations: Pakistan’s democracy is fragile at the best of times and India’s is in fast reverse, but there is no question of either of these South Asian giants leaving the organisation. On the other hand, Zimbabwe remains outside.

For the small countries that have the most to gain from Commonwealth membership, there are increasing frustrations. For example, the Caribbean Commonwealth wants to initiate a dialogue with the UK about the legacies of slavery, something which the government in London absolutely refuses to entertain. The decision to make King Charles head of the organisation on the death of his mother, without any serious debate, only reinforces the sense that this is a neo-colonial network, wedded to the past.

Ursa ex machina

It is difficult to talk of there being “upsides” to Russia’s war on Ukraine, given the immensity of the tragedy and loss.  But from a narrow perspective, it forced Britain out of the complacent delusions that had been allowed to take over its foreign policy. Even under President Biden, the relationship with the US remained distant: he is a reminder that an Atlanticist president is not necessarily Anglophile. And under Boris Johnson, relations with Europe over a range of issues, including the Northern Ireland protocol, were barely functional.

The Ukraine crisis forced a realignment. It reminded Britain that it couldn’t stop being a European country. The AUKUS submarine project had to be scaled back and the much hyped 2021 Integrated Review had to be rewritten. From 2021’s ‘Global Britain’ and an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, in two short years there was a shift to the recognition of a need to contribute towards collective European security. Vladimir Putin had achieved what no domestic British politician had been able to do: it forced Britain to stop ignoring Europe.

The impacts go far beyond Britain becoming a forward-leaning supporter of arming Ukraine: Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement with the EU and engagement with the European Political Community would both have been unthinkable before February 2022. The UK rejoining the Horizon science programme was another small example of the beginnings of pragmatism in relations with the EU.

No clear role, and little ambition to find one

These positive developments still leave Britain’s wider foreign policy incoherent and unfocused. On transatlantic affairs it is increasingly clear that the unpredictability of the Trump years were not an aberration: they are now the norm. Even with a Democrat in the White House, America’s politics are too turbulent to be able to encompass deep co-operation with individual middle powers. With China, the hawkish tendency has become powerful in British politics, exacerbated by recent spy scandals and persistent Chinese violations of national sovereignty, including of the now-large Hong Kong diaspora. Relations with China will be about risk management above all.

There remains huge pressure on the Conservatives to pursue disadvantageous trade deals in order to be seen to be making progress outside the EU. It is likely that a UK-India trade deal will be signed later in the year without binding labour or environmental pledges, undermining British businesses. For its part, the Labour party insists the UK cannot consider any kind of increased integration with EU structures whilst also believing that an improved deal can be achieved. The basic idea of gradual institutional realignment with Europe remains too risky for the two main parties.

In some respects, Acheson’s words were as true at the end of Brexit transition in January 2021 as they had been in December 1962: after 60 years, Britain had lost an empire (a 21st century economic, plurinational voluntary partnership – but still, in some senses, an empire), but not yet found a role.

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