The resignation of Theresa May’s international development secretary, Priti Patel, is a reminder of how damaging policy incoherence can be. When even senior ministers are not aligned on the implications of core UK foreign policy positions, such as over the Golan Heights, the risks to the UK become very real – and particularly in the context of the huge changes that will come with Brexit.
A recent New York Times piece by Steven Erlanger caused a flurry of emotions when it claimed that, largely because of Brexit, it seems “no-one knows what Britain is anymore”. In among the usual cheers of recognition from Remainers and howls of outrage from Brexiteers were a few more thoughtful responses. Influential former diplomat Tom Fletcher pointed out the EU-centric sourcing of the piece, but went on to support one of Erlanger’s central claims: that the UK appears to lack a self-confident strategy and narrative.
Brexit has revealed and accelerated deep divisions in the UK, mainly about its position in the world and future direction. It is no secret that the majority of the UK’s governing, business and cultural institutions felt membership of the EU brought advantages which were simply not recognised by the majority who voted to leave. If that divide is to be addressed it requires a more effective conversation between the policy world and wider public.
A timely new report from the British Foreign Policy Group calls for such a public-centred approach to the UK’s place in the world. Further it argues a new strategy is needed, recognising and integrating the UK’s international security, trade, and wider diplomatic interests, built around a set of publicly shared objectives.
However tall an order it might seem in a Brexit-divided Britain, this absolutely has to be achieved.
Finding the centre
Fortunately there is great potential for a stronger, healthier and more imaginative foreign policy thinking. Thanks to the rise of social media and the growing international links Britons enjoy as a society and as individuals, the public’s voice and role in foreign policy is far louder than it once was. Everyone now has the potential to be a citizen diplomat. The views we express and the information we spread carry more weight and are shared among ever more people.
But there are liabilities too. Britain’s foreign policy is more decentralised than ever, particularly when it comes to trade. The devolved administrations are developing their own international links and priorities, often markedly distinct from those set by Whitehall. There is real opportunity here for a foreign policy which would more genuinely recognise and serve all parts of the country – but again, there’s a real danger of policy incoherence.
Britain needs a proper public discussion about its international position and choices, particularly since some of the choices it faces demand trade-offs. For example, the prime minister has proposed a new “security treaty” between the UK and the EU post-Brexit, which would demand resources that could be committed elsewhere. Since the country couldn’t even agree that the trade-offs that come with EU membership were worth it, what chance is there that new commitments can secure public support?
The same problem holds when it comes to international development. Internationally, the UK is widely credited as setting a good example on this front – but at home its commitment to aid spending is highly contentious. The now-departed Patel herself was well-known as an advocate for reallocating aid money in the “national interest”.
The UK still ranks near the very top of most indices of various countries’ international capabilities of various kinds – military and aid spending, economic output, and so on. But it needs a new national foreign policy strategy that takes into account all aspects of international engagement – and that more carefully balances security, trade and wider diplomatic interests.
With more effective and directed use of both hard and soft power, there’s no reason the UK shouldn’t emerge from Brexit a more unified and more effective foreign policy actor, but that requires ambitious and fresh thinking. The alternative – whatever Britain’s future relationship with the rest of Europe – is a drift to the margins of global affairs.