One of the ways in which the current government remains popular despite clear evidence of corruption and incompetence is by selling comforting illusions to its core supporters. The idea of ‘Global Britain’ is one such fantasy. It paints a picture of a country that ‘punches above its weight’, is a ‘sovereign equal’ of a trading block of 27 states and is so much more than a small European island that it prioritises signing a trans-Pacific trade treaty over a deal with near neighbours.
Like ‘Make America Great Again’, the slogan appeals to nostalgia. It seems to work well with those feeling threatened by change or feeling ‘left behind’ by the modern world. It harks back to days when much of the map was (empire) red, when Britain had won the war and still had gunboats east of Suez.
While a new global role standing up for democracy and human rights sounds desirable, the capacity of a medium sized country to stamp its imprint on the international order is, in practice, decidedly limited. Moreover, much of the action taken by government in the past few years seems certain to diminish our influence on the world stage rather than enhance it. As former prime minister Theresa May has pointed out “threatening to break an international treaty shortly after signing it, threatening to break international law and cutting our international aid does not enhance the impact of global Britain.”
Last year the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £4 billion cut to the foreign aid budget reducing it from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. It has been widely criticised, not least by a former conservative aid minister Andrew Mitchell who called it a “shameful mistake”. He pointed out that the cut comes on top of a reduction caused by the shrinking of Britain’s GDP.
The cuts in the aid budget mean that Britain will be reducing the contribution it makes to help cope with the famine and medical emergency in Yemen, a move condemned by the Head of the UN as “a death sentence”. Aid is much more than disaster relief however and the UK will also be cutting funding for tackling corruption and human rights abuse, by up to 80 per cent according to some sources. In addition, it will be cutting research.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has recently had to write to institutions explaining that the budget for projects linked to development assistance will reduce to £125 million next year leaving a gap of £120 million between the allocation and existing commitments. Not only will the sudden cut imperil valuable research but it will undermine Britain’s reputation as a reliable partner in long term transnational projects.
The charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has recently announced plans to cut 200 staff and withdraw operations from 14 countries as a direct result of government funding drying up. Rather than sending 1,200 volunteers from the UK abroad as planned it will now support just 50. As the chief executive of VSO has explained “This is a major British institution that is known throughout the world and benefits the UK hugely, but unless we receive government funding it will no longer be a British institution.”
It is clear from a whole range of actions that the present administration has no idea about the concept of ‘soft power’. Any government serious about promoting British influence would have encouraged foreign students to come to the UK instead of erecting obstacles. It would have invested in the deep cultural exchanges promoted by the Erasmus scheme rather than setting up its own cut-price alternative. It would have welcomed the free movement of people across European borders rather than limiting the rights of its citizens to live and work elsewhere.
Global Britain however seems to be more associated with images of hard rather than soft power. We learn for example from that epicentre of imperial delusion, the Daily Express, that Liz Truss is to “strong arm China” into a favourable trade deal while at the same time criticising their human rights record. Although we cannot afford a decent level of social security or to fund our social care system, we are sending an aircraft carrier to sail through the South China Sea, albeit with a US warship to help defend it and US planes on board. We are upgrading our nuclear submarines at a cost of over £30 billion despite our inability to guarantee free school meals for poor children during their holidays.
Yet even these images of power are just that – images lacking much substance. The last independent military action of any significance undertaken by Britain was working with France to topple Colonel Ghaddafi in Libya. The operation was rightly described by Barak Obama as an unholy mess and a decade later the country is still in chaos. In Helmand province in Afghanistan and Basra in Iraq British forces were trumpeted as playing a critical role but in both cases had to be rescued by the Americans. This is not to criticise the bravery and professionalism of British troops. It simply reflects the fact that we cannot live up to the military fantasies of the armchair generals in Westminster and Fleet Street.
The priorities signalled in the Defence Review threaten to repeat this catalogue of failure. It promises heavy investment in nuclear weapons at the expense of the troops and tanks needed by the army. It favours posturing in the Pacific rather than strengthening defences nearer home. It offers grandiose ambitions “Shaping the international order of the future” rather than carefully matching our aspirations with our ability.
The truth is, as John Rentoul has argued in the Independent, this is far more about politics than defence. Indeed, the whole Global Britain project is based on images that play well with target groups of voters rather than a serious analysis of what Britain values and how that might be promoted. Tragically, in its cynical pursuit of soundbites rather than substance, the government is trashing some of the best that Britain currently offers the world.