Left out in the cold? May at an EU-ASEM summit in Brussels. Photo: AP/Shutterstock

Brexit and isolation on a dangerous planet

A former MI6 chief says Brexit will undermine Britain's place in the world
November 15, 2018

As a teenager during the Wilson/Heath era, I was conscious that Britain was not doing well. Our comics and films were full of wartime heroism and derring-do, but we were living on memories of the past and our present was failing to match them. We were falling behind Germany and France.

But then things began to change. First came our membership of the European Community, championed by Ted Heath. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms followed—with a heavy price—but the economy turned around. She drove through our membership of the single market, accepting shared decision making as the price. John Major kept us out of the single currency and retained national border controls, while ensuring Britain had a say in all EU decisions, achieving a better deal than any other member state. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown built on this and throughout that time, Britain’s economy grew steadily. We were looked to for leadership and new ideas and felt at ease working with both America and Europe, feeling no need to choose. Respect for Britain grew—it was all so different from the 1960s and 1970s.

Our diplomacy, defence and intelligence played a crucial role in managing the end of the Cold War, and the peace in Northern Ireland was admired across the world, an achievement that enhanced our reputation for negotiation and pragmatism. We boosted our efforts on aid and led new thinking on climate change. After 9/11, we developed new ways for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to collaborate on counter-terror work and when the financial system crashed in 2008, it was Brown who galvanised the international community. There was no doubt that through my time as a diplomat and later as chief of MI6, Britain had weight in the world.

But Britain is at an inflection point. We have chosen to leave the EU. While it was never couched this way, we decided that the power to determine our own future without any interference is worth a sacrifice of jobs and national income—that we should pay a price in order to stand on our own. The question now is how we avoid going back to the 1970s, when Britain was stuck in the economic slow-lane and our politics was inward-looking and zero-sum. How do we maintain our international influence and avoid a steady, deadening, loss of respect?

The world is changing fast, and not in our favour. The role of America looks set to go through a bigger change during the Trump administration than under any recent president. Trump is tackling some serious issues: trade with China; the cost of Nato; North Korea; Iran; and immigration. But instead of working with allies to forge common solutions, the new US method is to kick over the table and leave others to pick up the pieces.

No one expects the America of 2018 to go as far as President Kennedy declared 60 years ago: to “pay any price, bear any burden… support any friend… to assure the survival and success of liberty.” But this president is taking the opposite view, telling allies that US support is no longer based on shared values and commitments. The international order that America designed and has led since 1945 is being replaced with one where might is right. There will be lasting damage, and if Trump remains in office until 2024, it will not be reversible.

US allies are hedging their bets. Japan and Korea are seeking an accommodation with China. In Europe, Nato’s mutual defence agreement is no longer as ironclad as it was: the president’s personal interests could be a factor in whether the US is prepared to defend a Nato ally against Russia.

When Canada is hit by trade sanctions on the grounds that it poses a national security threat to the US, and Trump declares that he has fallen in love with Kim Jong-un, you know something has changed.

Worse, Trump is becoming a role model for leaders around the world. Dismissing uncomfortable facts as “fake news,” challenging constitutional checks and balances, the president is degrading democratic politics at home and abroad. Brazil is the latest  example of a state where a politician adopted Trump’s tactics to gain power. Even in Britain, some of our politicians ape the Trump methodology. Outright lies were told in the Brexit debate and went unchecked. May is threatened with ghoulish violence by her own MPs—this, after the appalling murder of Jo Cox.

Undemocratic leaders friendly with the US see a new opportunity to assert raw power. The shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Istanbul Consulate by a hit squad sent from Riyadh is an example. The Saudi Crown Prince seemed to believe the Trump administration would save him from being held to account.

Some Trump supporters say the president is simply using America’s power while it still has it. There is something to this: the US now faces a serious competitor. China has already overtaken America on some economic measures. Just as the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe after the war and bound the US and Europe together, so President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative is an economic programme of geopolitical significance. The west is united in worrying about this, but not in deciding what to do about it. A new, more aggressive US strategy to contain China’s rise is taking shape without British or European input.

Russia too has ambitions to restore its great power status and Putin’s approach is zero-sum: the weaker the west, the stronger Russia becomes, hence he sows division, promotes European populism and meddles in US elections. He calibrates his actions: I doubt Russia would have used a nerve agent on the streets of a US or German city. The consequences would have been too great.

But Russia was willing to treat Britain with contempt. There was little effort to disguise who did it: the brazenness was part of the message. Yes, it was us, the Russians are saying: what are you going to do about it? Our very weakness—as a result of Brexit and fraying transatlantic ties—made Britain an attractive target for Russian bullying. Theresa May responded strongly, and won backing from all our allies, even the US. Had Britain reacted on its own we would have had no impact on Moscow.

Brexit has come at a very bad moment. The US is stepping back from world leadership, and resurgent great power politics is disrupting the rules-based order. As Europe faces its biggest challenges for 70 years, Britain is marching out of our protective regional grouping to face the cold winds on our own. Brexit weakens both Britain and Europe.

The consequences will be far-reaching. Take security, where data sharing is at the heart of international co-operation. Unusual activity shows up in data analysis. Two pieces of a puzzle can be all you need to reveal the whole picture. Tracking terrorists and criminals is done through data trails, as when the police and MI5 worked out the movements of the Russian agents who tried to kill Sergei Skripal. The rules on data sharing in Europe are set by the EU and after Brexit, Britain will no longer help to shape them. Our notional sovereignty may be greater, but our real power and influence will be much reduced.

Co-operating within the EU framework is also crucial. Britain will no longer be a full member of EU bodies like Europol and the Intelligence Centre. Our automatic rights to participate are forfeited by Brexit. The government rightly wants a new treaty to reinstate our role—but why we are leaving in the first place?

When it comes to foreign policy, May’s government has always worked with our European partners—in preserving the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate agreement, in standing up to Russian aggression, or concerning the Khashoggi murder. We remain very close to America on defence and intelligence—but in terms of the sort of world we want to live in, we are much closer to the approach of our European partners than we are to today’s US.

As Ray Seitz, a former American ambassador to London, once said, the more influential Britain is in Europe the more weight it carries in Washington, and the more weight it has in Washington the more influence Britain has in Europe. We were accruing weight at both ends of that transatlantic ledger throughout the last three decades. From the day of the Brexit referendum, we started to lose it.

The consequences of Brexit will reverberate for the next 50 years. When we joined the EU in 1973, parliament had approved the decision by 356 votes to 244, and two years later that was ratified in a referendum by 67 per cent to 33 per cent. If we withdraw through a tiny majority in parliament on the back of a 52-48 referendum, the issue will not be settled. The “Europe question” will dog us for years to come, and may well contribute to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

For that reason, I believe that both Leave and Remain should support a second referendum. With a clear deal on the table, the British people would have the choice between the historic decision to leave with the terms of departure known, or to decide that, on reflection, we would rather stay. The issue would then be put to rest.

I was lucky to be in diplomacy and intelligence at a time when our small island played a big role. I remain optimistic about Britain: there is a fabulous wealth of creativity, and the younger generation emerging from universities is much better equipped than my own cohort was.

In the wake of Brexit, we need to re-build our partnerships with America, Germany and France if we are to protect ourselves in the bleak international landscape of the 21st century.

John Sawers is former chief of MI6