Brexit Britain: Global leadership or Conservative introspection?

Brexit Britain: Global leadership or Conservative introspection?
Comment: UK foreign policy has the chance to evolve to push a human rights and conflict resolution agenda, instead, attitudes are hardening and xenophobic tendencies are becoming more entrenched.
7 min read
30 May, 2017
The frequent gaffes of Boris Johnson, Britain's top diplomat, often bolster Theresa May's position [Getty]

Quite understandably, there are numerous concerns about what a future Britain will look like after Brexit.

We frequently hear about "Global Britain". The term often comes from the mouths of government ministers, and there's even a "Global Britain" paragraph in the Conservative Party manifesto.

Yet while "Global Britain" has become a post-Brexit UK foreign policy buzzword, what does it mean - and why does it seem to be so elusive? This is, after all, an historic moment for the United Kingdom. However, this General Election has far more of a Parish Council feel than that of a colonial superpower.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016, UK foreign policy - particularly on the Middle East - has taken a back seat. Resolving conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and British obligations towards Palestinians and Israelis alike, have been placed on the backburner, given the negotiations of the UK's relationship with the EU.

In some quarters, public and political attitudes against refugees have continued to harden. Trade and security have replaced, undermined, and perhaps scuppered the raising of human rights issues, conflict resolution or the idea of Britain as a sanctuary for refugees fleeing conflict.

It would not be a surprise if the UK tunes out of major foreign policy decisions - both as a result of Brexit and a rather unpredictable administration in the US

Critics and allies of the current government alike will acknowledge that the burden as a result of Brexit is like no other. Despite pre-election talk of the Conservative government potentially intervening militarily in Syria if it had an increased majority, it would be unreasonable to expect grand policy decisions coming out of Downing Street any time soon.

It would not be a surprise if the UK tunes out of major foreign policy decisions - both as a result of Brexit and a rather unpredictable administration in the US.

While the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have significant emphasis on foreign policy in their manifestos - explicit references to conflict resolution in Syria and Yemen, commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and UK obligations to take in refugees - that of the Conservative Party is vague and general. There is not a single specific mention of Syria, not in the context of conflict resolution, aid, refugees or extremism.

Israel/Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran also do not get a specific mention.

This may not be ideological but pragmatic. Given that the Conservative Party is expecting to form the next government, they may not wish to tie their hands.

There is a welcome commitment - as with all political parties - to maintain spending of 0.7 percent of GDP to international development, but the Conservative Party pledge comes with a caveat that "definitions of need" can be changed, and that international definitions are not always correct.

This is framed in a predominantly domestic context:

"There are still ways that we can improve the way that taxpayers' money is used to help the world's most vulnerable people. We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent, on whom and for what purpose. So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target."


Place this in the context of the likely collapse of UKIP, as well as certain British media campaigns against foreign aid, and views among populist and far-right parties across Europe who maintain isolationist positions popular with their publics - and it appears to be quite a subtle way of saying Brexit has changed everything. 

Boris Johnson may have added 'character' to foreign policy, but he has not added substance

As it stands, Britain has a somewhat emasculated foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who is kept at arms length. His blunders often serve a purpose, and bolster Theresa May's authority, but certainly demonstrate a less powerful Foreign Office.

His exact role remains unclear - given that others are dealing with Brexit, and trade and has been undermined on occasion by the prime minister. Boris Johnson may have added "character" to foreign policy, but he has not added substance. The days of William Hague and Angelina Jolie campaigning for an end to sexual violence against women in conflict seem further and further away, as are calls for regime change and bolstering freedoms and rights of people across the Middle East.

The Conservative Party pledges to "continue to champion British values around the globe: freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law". But will this be the case? Is there the political will? Are such pledges key to Conservative votes? Are there the resources?

It would be churlish to suggest human rights have no place whatsoever, but energies to tackle human rights abuses and encourage better human rights practice appear to have waned significantly.

Perhaps Brexit has cemented a stark truth that Britain's global foreign policy "brand" is depleted and demoralised. "British values" are said to be an integral part of our foreign policy. The Conservative manifesto reminds us that "our history is a global history; our future must be global too" and that "Britain should play an active, leading role in the world. Not because it is our right or inheritance, but because our leadership in the world is the surest way to defend and advance the interests of the British people, and to extend around the world those values that we believe to be right".

Politicians of all parties struggle to define "British values", but one would hope that they would not be measured by security and trade deals with human rights abusers and the arms trade. Necessity, security of jobs, security and co-operation against terror, and the strength of friendship to act as a critical friend will be touted as a reason to justify these relationships.

Who knows what Theresa May has said to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu of Israel and Erdogan of Turkey and others in private meetings? Is the UK is inclining towards the "strong men" of the Middle East once again?

British corporate investments in Sisi's authoritarian Egypt reached $30 billion in 2016.

But can Britain play the effective critical friend? Brexit has exposed a foreign policy narrative of apology and apologist, not for past mistakes, but for our friends and their shared values. This exposure may not necessarily be as a result of a significant policy shift, one that has a total disregard for human rights being part of that policy, but out of perceived necessity in order to survive, post-Brexit, and really make "Global Britain" work outside the EU.

Theresa May is of the "whatever it takes" approach, with a willingness and need to do "whatever it takes" to make leaving the EU a success. This was the reason for her coronation and this will be her legacy. This is abundantly clear in areas of foreign policy, particularly related to the Middle East.

It is an approach that is at times unethical, quite clearly short-sighted, and which neglect's Britain's diplomatic role and the assets it has, whether in soft power terms or other, towards conflict resolution and enhancing human rights globally. Sadly, Brexit has bolstered this approach.

Brexit has provided an excuse for the UK government, if it so chooses, to avoid significant foreign policy decisions on the Middle East

For both the Trump administration and Theresa May's post-Brexit Conservative Party, the Middle East (for different reasons) has come to be seen through the narrow prism of trade and security.

Brexit has provided an excuse for the UK government, if it so chooses, to avoid significant foreign policy decisions on the Middle East - they are not vote-winners, after all, and obligations and discussions over "the right thing to do" will be trumped by "whatever it takes".

Although other political parties in the UK highlight the war in Yemen and the UK's direct involvement in it with arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the discussion is unlikely to gain further momentum. Does the government want to continue to see more deaths of Yemeni civilians? No. But is the government going to budge on its trade and security relationship with Saudi Arabia? No.

As Britain's global role is evolving after it leaves the European Union, there remains an opportunity to be pragmatic, to push a human rights and conflict resolution agenda, to develop and move foreign policy positions that may have been restricted before.

Although much of the post-Brexit rhetoric has become more global, Brexit has ensured that much of the debate is domestic. A truly "Global Britain", when it comes to foreign policy, is yet to emerge.

Joseph Willits works at the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

At Caabu, Joseph has led cross-party Parliamentary delegations to Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, and has spoken to schools about Islamophobia and multiculturalism as part of Caabu's education programme.

Follow him on Twitter: @josephwillits