"Global Britain" has become an oft-repeated phrase. Yet in reality, the Foreign Office is losing its battle to find a place in the world for Britain post-Brexitby Steve Bloomfield / October 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the summer of 2016, a few weeks after Theresa May became prime minister, Number 10 approached the White House with an idea. Leaving the EU, as May herself had pointed out during the referendum, would mean losing international influence. But if May could lead Britain into a new alliance, she thought, perhaps some of that damage could be fixed. Britain and the US, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, already co-operated on intelligence through the “Five Eyes” alliance. What if, May suggested, this alliance expanded beyond intelligence and became a formal political bloc? Barack Obama’s response was blunt. “That’s crazy,” he told his aides. “What are those five countries going to do?” They didn’t have an answer and the offer was declined (in slightly more diplomatic language).
Since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, huge questions surrounding the UK’s place in the world have been left unanswered. May has come up with a slogan, Global Britain, but nothing so far resembling a strategy. The cabinet has been at loggerheads about how far—or not—to remain “aligned” with the European economy. But even to the extent the UK is tempted to try something different, there is no agreement about what that is—whether to concentrate, as George Osborne did at one time, on aligning with China? Or forging new links with other emerging economies? To double down on the relationship with Washington, or look back to historic colonial connections?
Attempts to forge closer trade links with the Commonwealth have been mocked as Empire 2.0, while this year’s Commonwealth summit was overshadowed by the row over the ill-treatment of the Windrush generation. May has sought to work with European leaders on Iran, climate change and Russia, but has also angered politicians on the continent with heated rhetoric over Brexit. Meanwhile, early attempts to befriend Donald Trump ended in embarrassment. All that seems clear is that the country is leaving a club without any real idea where it is going.
The institution charged with helping a confused country chart a way through this muddle is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is one of the most venerable institutions in the world of diplomacy. Since the post of foreign secretary was created in 1782, his (or,…