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Expert View

Brexit makes a mockery of Global Britain

by David Hannay | 18.02.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

The chancellor’s mission to China, aborted following a jingoistic speech from defence secretary Gavin Williamson, will surely be taught at Britain’s diplomatic academy for some time to come. It is a case study in how not to conduct the external policies of the new “Global Britain”, which is supposed to be the crowning glory of the post-Brexit era.

It is not just that there must be a number of more sensible and less costly ways of asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea than sailing one of the UK’s two capital ships halfway round the world to do so. This episode also reveals a complete lack of coordination between the economic and security aspects of our foreign policy.

When David Cameron’s coalition government established a National Security Council headed by a National Security Adviser to advise the government on foreign policy choices, one of the main objectives was to achieve better coordination between the different government departments involved and to reduce the turf fighting and incoherence which had hitherto too often prevailed. And there have been some signs that this objective was being achieved.

But now a new prime minister has decided to merge the posts of Secretary of the Cabinet and National Security Adviser and to ask the incumbent, Mark Sedwill, to do two full time jobs. That decision will surely need to be reversed if there are not to be more examples of last week’s mutually inconsistent priorities.

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There are, in any case, wider lessons to be learned from this episode. The UK, like any other country, can be ranked, and is ranked by other countries, on what can be called a “trepidation index”. That index registers just how much other countries pause and act cautiously before kicking us on the shins or turning a deaf ear to our policy recommendations.

There have been plenty of signs since the Brexit vote in 2016 of the UK’s score on the trepidation index declining. The absence of a UK judge on the International Court of Justice for the first time since that court was established was one example. As was the vote in the UN General Assembly on the treatment of the Chagos Islanders. This latest episode with China is just another one. Denial is not an adequate response to such straws in the wind if ministers want to avoid many more of them in the future.

In no policy area will this declining international influence be more relevant than in trade policy. If the Brexiters have their way and we crash out of the EU at the end of March without a deal, we could be practising an independent trade policy within a few weeks time.

The first signs are not encouraging. Liam Fox may have clocked up a huge number of air miles but he has not scored many successes yet, even in the relatively straightforward task of rolling over the provisions of trade deals we currently benefit from as a member of the EU – and reports from Tokyo this morning suggest that he is managing to rub up the Japanese the wrong way. That task is likely to be a walk in the park compared with the infinitely more demanding task of negotiating completely new agreements, with greater benefits for our exporters than they enjoy in the EU today.

In no sector will that be more demanding than in our trade in services, now some 80% of our economy, because we already run a surplus on services with most of our trading partners. So do not expect them to leap forward with further concessions – or at least not without demanding reciprocal concessions in trade in goods and agriculture that we may be reluctant to grant.

It is deeply worrying that we have reached this point without having given any serious consideration to the wider implications of the course on which we have embarked. It would surely be wise to pause at this stage and to consider whether we are heading in the right direction.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “Brexit makes a mockery of Global Britain”

  • Thank you for your excellent remarks. One can only share your huge frustration at this reckless destruction of our prestige and influence. Not only have relations with China been undermined by such careless words, but since then;
    – UK government has indicated that it will be unilaterally decreasing many MFN tariffs and not applying a range of anti-dumping duties – notably on China
    – US has confirmed that a condition of a trade agreement with the US is likely to be that we dont have one with China! Wilbur Ross is proud of this poison pill he has had inserted into US trade agreements with third countries.
    Why has our government ignored all sensible trade expertise in favour of charlatans such as Shanker Singham and Daniel Hannan?