Britain’s Place as a Leading Democracy Lies in the Balance

Georgina Wright

Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber 2

As the old proverb says, in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters: one representing danger and the other, opportunity.  The danger right now is clear. The UK’s EU referendum result has split the country along national and regional lines. Negotiations with the EU are expected to be long and complex, and with the Foreign Office losing 25 per cent of its resources since 2010, there are serious concerns about the UK’s ability to maintain an active presence on the global stage.

But is this also a time of opportunity for British foreign policy? The coming years have the potential to radically reshape both the UK’s own governance and its status as a leading democracy. A ‘global Britain’ will require the UK to redouble its efforts by strengthening both its domestic institutions and its relations with countries around the world, including with European allies.

For many analysts, the UK’s decision to leave the EU partly reflects democratic failings, the distrust of large parts of society in their governments and existing processes of decision-making. Recent polls show that Britons are cautious of interventions abroad and many feel that traditional left-right parties no longer reflect their values and concerns.

While this should be a cause for concern, it also offers the chance for politicians and publics alike to rethink the UK’s international priorities and ways to broaden the debate of foreign policy beyond parliament. At the regional level, the devolved administrations have already started to reassess their external relations and how their priorities fit or contrast with those of the UK government. There could be greater scope for their participation in foreign policy in the future.

At the national level, the UK’s EU referendum has forced politicians to be more open about growing societal divides – and rethink ways to make foreign policy-making more inclusive and accountable to the public through public debates, forum and open communication.

The separation between a state’s domestic and international priorities has been blurred and foreign policy is now very much part of the public domain. Widespread opposition to a country’s priorities can no longer be ignored and parliamentary and public support as a precondition for international action has become more important than ever.

The decision to grant the UK parliament a vote on triggering article 50 and the final Brexit deal is a positive step in this regard. As the UK prepares for its future outside of the EU, there is a chance for the UK to broaden dialogue on the UK’s foreign policy to a broader set of constituents, including with the devolved administrations, the media and civil society. A more united UK will also be more credible on the international stage.

This is important as the UK will need to reaffirm its commitment to, and engagement in, the work of multilateral institutions in setting common agendas for resolving crises around the world. It has been an active member of NATO, the G7, G8 and G20 and holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It also has an impressive set of soft and hard power tools at its disposal and the broad reach of the English language. With over 200 embassies, consulates and missions, the UK government has maintained regular dialogue with countries around the world.

This broad reach must continue. Closely aligning the UK’s interests with those of multilateral institutions would reduce the chances of the UK adopting a purely mercantilist foreign policy post-Brexit which risks jeopardising its position as a promoter of democratic cooperation and good governance.

If the UK government manages to simultaneously bridge internal divides and bolster its commitment to international institutions, it will be easier for it to continue supporting the values the UK holds dear: democracy, peace, security, rule of law and commitment to international cooperation and institutions. It will also offer a way out of danger, and pave the way for more active and responsible action on the international stage.

Georgina Wright is a research assistant and coordinator for the Chatham House Europe Programme.

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