For British people, the past 5 years have been turbulent, unpredictable, uneasy, and uncertain. For a population accustomed to prosperity and a self-perceived sense of ‘greatness’, recent times represent an alien experience. Brexit has dominated newspapers, causing self-doubt to creep, and lapsed confidence to fester. Borne now is the realisation that what was once a ‘Great’ Britain, may be an ever-dwindling, far-lesser Britain.
As the world battles the pandemic, Downing Street finds itself at a crossroads. Like every country, it is a nation reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, and a muddied vision of its future in a new world order. What gives the UK a unique edge, despite these issues, is that it is well equipped to strive for post-pandemic prosperity.
First, Brexit has not damaged Britain to the extent that many political commentators predicted. After tough and extended negotiations, the UK managed to complete a Free Trade Arrangement (FTA) with the EU, a feat once thought improbable, especially given the cooling relationship between both parties. This deal is essential for two reasons. First, it bestows stability and strength to Britain’s financial future. At a minimum, the EU-UK trade deal safeguards foreign investment and maintains London’s credibility as a legitimate financial powerhouse. At its maximum, it allows Britain to reap the rewards of European trade, whilst the nation benefits from new sovereign freedoms.
Second, the FTA boosts the UK’s international image. How one interprets the nature and ease of the Brexit negotiations will vary, but there is universal agreement that Britain is not the international pariah many thought it would be. Foreign politicians and diplomats will recognise that the EU’s willingness to sign a trade deal with its recent divorcee highlights the value of having the UK as a trade partner.
Second, the organisation and management of national vaccine rollouts has given Downing Street its first grand opportunity to ‘make its mark’, to spearhead a nation reborn, and reimagined. By all accounts, it has converted this challenge into a national success story, with the 3rd highest doses given per 100 residents in the world. This is especially pertinent given the disastrous nature of the EU’s vaccine rollout. The ineffectiveness of the EU approach is due to tardiness in contract negotiations with vaccine suppliers, and supply-chain disruptions. In February, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen voiced her concerns over the comparatively lacklustre approach of the EU, compared to the UK: “We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time”. In this context, one may see EU beauracracy as an eraser of efficacy, rather than a preventor of crisis. Furthermore, by donating £548m to COVAX, the UK has projected its reputable vaccine management streak onto the world stage, a major tool for future diplomacy, and a linchpin of its post-EU success story.
These two phenomena – a rapid vaccine rollout, and newfound sovereignty accompanied by EU economic perks – lay a solid foundation from which Johnson’s government can attempt to fulfil its promise to ‘Build Back Better’. British optimism and ambition is advertised by the government’s publication of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy. Within this review lies national aspirations: increased presence in the Indo-Pacific, a refocus on bilateral cooperation, conducting diplomacy through the identification of common interests, whilst maintaining seniority within multilateral fora. Effectively, areas of difference between the UK and other nations are to be recognised, but not preventative of, cooperation. For example, London has condemned human rights abuses commited by Beijing, but it will not cease working with the Chinese on issues of mutual concern, primarily trade. This ethos, whilst not wildly different from previous foreign policy, represents a recalibration in the UK’s diplomatic strategies. Britain’s rejuvenated enthusiasm to engage with foreign entities perhaps reflects sentiments of newfound vulnerability, a nation no longer supported by an EU common framework. Or, a readjusted attitude to external commitments is simply a demonstration of a nation liberated, both from the looming shadows of European interference in British affairs, and the shackles of abiding by laws not in-line with the UK’s raison d’état. Whichever way one interprets Downing Street’s renewed internationalism in the Integrated Review, it is obvious that the UK has big plans for the coming decade. It is true that British optimism may be slightly overstated, and apparently unchecked by realism, however it is not wrong for the nation to have high aspirations for its role in a post-pandemic world order.
To convert these aspirations into realisations, The UK must recognise what constitutes ‘greatness’ within the new world order framework will not be the ability to coerce others with military might, or to one-up neighbours within economic fora. Instead, it is likely that a recovering world will value a nation’s ability to cooperate with others, and to manage domestic issues with clarity and efficacy. In sum, to be admirable, respected, and prosperous.
Whilst the Integrated Review is certainly idealistic, it is not in such a way that is harmful to Britain’s international image. To be great, the UK need not overconcern itself with the polarity of the new world order, or withdraw from risky foreign policy manoeuvres by reverting to behaviours synonymous with its ‘Perfidious Albion’ caricature. Instead, a Great Britain is one which cooperates with the EU despite obvious political differences, one which nurtures the US-UK special relationship, and one which champions human liberties. To be truly great, Downing Street must possess the confidence to engage in a world order on its own terms, relish risk-taking, and not be hamstrung by polarity, power, and pride. So far, the nation is on the right track.
Written by Hector McKechnie
Hector McKechnie is a columnist at DecipherGrey.