The UK is seen as paralysed by Brexit and the country’s reputation for stability and competence is under question. Former Foreign Office press secretary Simon McGee, now executive director at APCO Worldwide, considers Britain’s growing image problem and what to do about it
The Elephant and Castle olde-English-pub in Washington DC was a thoughtful place for my colleague to suggest a post-work pint. Its walls are lined with random pieces of confected ‘vintage’ English pub paraphernalia, its mahogany stained shelves weighed down by books purchased for decoration because they feature the words British or English on the spine, and its laminated menu offering that well known speciality ‘London cheesesteak.’ I felt right at home.
And then the question that I had heard three dozen times already on my brief visit to the USas my colleague Frank, a former senior US State Department envoy, swung his jacket on the back of his chair and sat down with a cheeky grin: “So Simon, how’s that Brexit thing going?”
Whether one subscribes to the Leaver belief that Brexit is Britain leaping first from a burning building or the Remainer conviction that it is akin to shooting oneself in the foot, there is one undeniable consequence of the last two years of hither and thither: that the UK feels a little less itself, appears less competent and looks quite a lot less stable. It’s as if the confident handshake deployed by British diplomats the world over has been replaced by a slightly embarrassed shrug of the shoulders.
Much of this is self-inflicted by democracy: a Scottish referendum in 2014 that imperilled the Union; three indecisive general elections that left the Conservatives twice needing other parties to form a government; individual parliamentarians increasingly standing up to a weak government; a Prime Minister more comfortable with managing than leading; virtual political campaigning and activism that has shown itself to have been influenced by foreign forces; and a muddle of a Brexit process, to put it lightly, that has unpacked complex and difficult questions on everything from the status of Northern Ireland to intelligence sharing on terrorists.
These aren’t arguments against democracy, simply an acknowledgment that Britain, like the US and other mature democracies, have traditions of internal challenge and debate that can make a country appear weaker when standing on the international stage. I recently sat at a dinner in Davos fuming as I listened to the former president of an EU member state praising the diplomatic skill and international standing of Russiaand China; yes, I replied, autocracies do have a way of looking strong and consistent.
Unlike democracy’s self-inflicted wounds, some of the talk of Britain and her standing is characterised by noise in the diplomatic echo chamber that is becoming real by force of repetition. A neat summary of these kinds of criticisms was contained in a recent 12-page pamphlet by the United Nations Association-UK, the pro-UN campaign group in the UK. But many of these hinge on perception or expectation.
While there is no doubt that diplomats at the UN believe a UK outside Europe will be less able or willing to act in concord with the EU, there is no suggestion at all that the UK would not continue working closely with her P3 partners. And there is every indication from British diplomats that we will do so. While the UK lost a UN General Assembly vote on the long-running legal dispute over the Chagos Islands and the UK failed to get our candidate onto the International Court of Justice, they are not in themselves damning. Britain never expected much General Assembly support on the first, and the second can be seen just as much as a wider backlash against permanent UN Security Council members (which has seen Franceand Russia fail to secure positions for their candidates on other multilateral bodies) as opinion turning against the UK.
The pamphlet does recognise the extent to which the UK leads much of the UN Security Council’s business, by virtue of being a penholder on a raft of high-profile issues, but fails to point out that the UK is one of the few countries with two Under-Secretary-Generals at the UN (Mark Lowcock and Alison Smale) and barely mentions the unprecedented diplomatic coup (the largest collective expulsion of Russian diplomats ever) achieved by the UK following the attempted assassination of the Skripals in March 2018. And yet despite my own protestations and justifications, there is a feeling deep down that something has changed. Perhaps not quite a Suez moment but a definite smell of blood in the water. So, what to do about it?
In my old role at the FCO, I was present at the birth of ‘Global Britain.’ Not quite the midwife, but an attendant at early attempts to shape and launch the idea. And it was never meant to be a complex idea, as some have suggested. It was simple: an attempt to explain that Brexit would not mean turning away from the world but – through the UK’s continued commitment to multilateralism and the international rules based system, commitment to Nato and spending 2 per cent of GDP on common defence, and global sustainability through spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid – continue to be an active participant in the attempts of liberal democracies to shape it according to our values.
It was also a message to non-EU countries that being a little less EU-focused might mean the UK refocusing on our bilateral relations with the rest of the world, particularly the Commonwealth. But with the uncertainties of Brexit, and changes of management, it never got far beyond that initial idea and was never fleshed out with policy and intent. The navel-gazing of Brexit might not yet allow the country to set a grand strategy, but it should deploy all of its communications smarts to project accordingly.
First, Britain must remain visible and keep explaining herself, and ideally not only about Brexit. The Prime Minister might not like being visible on the media, particularly when she travels abroad, but that means everyone else must be. Unfortunately, parliamentary arithmetic means that British Foreign Office, trade and defence ministers who are MPs are tied to Parliament when it is sitting and cannot travel abroad to represent their country at summits or on official visits; it is a domestic situation doing huge harm to our relationships abroad at a critical time. So, we need our ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls general out communicating with everyone – politicians, media, business people, young people, everyone – incessantly, reminding them that British interests are wide and never-wavering. And if that means more resources for press officers so be it.
Second, the old problem of issue and narrative prioritisation: there is rarely any of it. Early in his tenure as Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt identified two key values issues – media freedoms and the persecution of Christians – but he is now knee deep in a dozen other causes and countries. It’s incredibly hard to prioritise, particularly about the things you want to talk about rather than what the world wants you to talk about, but ministers have to keep trying. One of the issues Boris cared deeply about, and which Britain could have received proper recognition for internationally, was the campaign to bring ISIL to justice for genocide and other crimes against humanity. It was an issue that the UK was leading on in the UN and gaining traction on internationally, but Boris failed to stay focused on it, unsurprisingly because of Brexit, and the moment passed. If Britain is to be known for anything other than Brexit it needs to find a handful of issues on which it can demonstrate this international leadership and sense of purpose.
Thirdly and finally, a thought that is in effect the opposite of my second: find issues to be active and vocal on in which the UK can play a supportive, second fiddle role. If part of the problem is other countries currently revelling in the misery of the big kids in the playground, then perhaps it is time to be less thrusting and a little more supportive. What are we saying to the other gangs of kids in the global playground – the EU, AU, ASEAN – as we prepare to go it alone? Do we need to share more of our sweets – not just aid but military capabilities or technical assistance – before we take the big plunge? Are we using the Commonwealth properly to help less wealthy and prominent members? And if we do, what does that look like in terms of the political conviction to make this happen and the diplomatic bandwidth to implement a more sophisticated and transactional foreign policy?
I don’t have the answers, but we need some urgently, not only after a post-Brexit transition period. Unless British diplomacy finds a voice and agrees a roadmap, Global Britain has a few very rough years ahead her.