Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight and sits on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.
Not for the first time we have a global publication in despair over the state of the UK.
The Economist has become the latest to write off Britain, warning: “Britain has worried about decline before, but never like this.” This comes after a similarly themed editorial last year warning that Britain “has not cut such a pathetic figure on the global stage since Suez.”
The New York Times has been equally negative. The newspaper’s outgoing London bureau chief lamented earlier this year that “no-one knows what Britain is anymore.” Really?
Economically, at least, the UK – like every other Western power – has been in relative decline for some time. The rest of the world is industrialising and catching up with the revolution the British started over two centuries ago. In many ways, though, Britain, through its language, laws, and lifestyles as well as its culture and creativity, is increasingly powerful in shaping the structures and perceptions of the world.
Britain is not a superpower and has not been one for at least fifty years – only the US, and increasingly China, are. However, after that, there are a series of great powers. There are old ones, such as the UK, France, and Germany, and there are newer or re-emerging ones such as Indonesia or India.
Britain is almost unique in being a member or signatory of 80 global organisations and treaties. Next year we are leaving only two: the EU and Euratom, the European atomic energy community.
According to the Henry Jackson Society’s “Audit of Geopolitical Capability”, the UK is one of very few genuinely global nations, with reach into every region and continent. The International Monetary Fund shows that the UK remains the fifth-largest economy in terms of nominal Gross Domestic Product. Credit Suisse’s annual Global Wealth Report reveals that the UK – with over US$14 trillion – holds the fourth highest quantity of total net wealth in the world, more than any other European country.
For better or worse, we have one of the largest aid budgets on the planet. We are one of the few countries with an expeditionary military capability (the ability to mount operations far from home). The International Institute for Strategic Studies places the country sixth for military spending, comparable to India and Russia.
In terms of global and information “connectivity”, Huawei ranks the UK second among its major power peers, while Portland ranks it first for Soft Power. Even in terms of social progress, where the UK is thought to be weaker, the Social Progress Initiative ranks it higher than Germany, France, Japan, or the United States, to say nothing of China, Russia, and India. The British higher education sector also performs remarkably: according to Times Higher Education, the UK has more Top 500 universities than any other country bar the US, with almost as many as Germany and France put together.
The UK, therefore, is perhaps the pre-eminent great power, mixing many forms of influence.
Britain’s inherent strengths do not mean that there are not challenges ahead: there are. Navigating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will clearly not come easily. But at the same time, aside from the devaluation of the pound (which has been a blessing to some) none of the immediate consequences predicted – even by the Treasury – in the event of a “Leave” vote have come to pass. There has been no recession and no punishment budget. And the latest economic growth figures reveal that the British economy grew at least as fast in the last quarter as the Eurozone’s.
Nonetheless, the economy needs further reform to boost productivity, taxation is at a record high, the transport system needs modernisation, and we have a housing shortage, compounded by the failure of developers to deliver the right kind of housing. This Government needs a more clearly defined domestic agenda.
In foreign policy, the vision of “Global Britain” also requires work. As the world order is being challenged increasingly by authoritarian powers like Russia and China, more balance is required between aid and other tools of national strategy, not least hard power – our Armed Forces. In addition, government departments need to be better synchronised to deliver effect efficiently.
Critically, the UK needs to think harder about how to become a leading advocate and reformer of the World Trade Organisation, which is under pressure from both superpowers. In the US, Donald Trump champions ‘America First’ and fans trade wars, whilst China has consistently manipulated or broken WTO rules. There is much for Jeremy Hunt and other ministers to think about. A global trade war just as we are leaving the EU is something we need to fight against, both on principle and self-interest.
But if Britain is to decline, it will be less because of any material constraints and more due to a lack of faith in our values and people. Optimism may not deliver much by way of hard fact, but it is a good starting point. Post-Brexit, we need therefore to re-align politics to harness the extraordinary drive and character of the the British people and deliver a country that genuinely works for everyone. We need to close the ruptures of modern times and marginalise the emotional elements on the political extremes. And we must also grasp the essential idea that Britain can only succeed as a nation if it is in charge of its own destiny.
Britain, and its people, are remarkable. We have done so much that is good for us and the world, including the championing of science and modern technology, the destruction of the slave trade, the largely peaceful process of decolonisation, the defeat of Fascism and Communism, and the global spread of a rules-based order. At home we have championed social progress and social justice, simultaneously combining with it a free trading, free thinking ethos.
Our nation is extraordinary. There is no reason to think it will not be in future.