What, really, is ‘Global Britain’? What do its proponents want to achieve with it and how does it differ from Britain’s previous strategies for engaging with the world? Oliver Daddow argues that in casting the EU as a prison, the phrase marks a distinctly Eurosceptical turn in Britain’s engagement with the rest of the world.

Like all things Brexit, Theresa May’s intention of building “Global Britain” outside the European Union has been controversial from the outset. Government ministers have expended a good deal of political capital championing “why Global Britain matters”, framing it as an exercise in creating an “outward-looking” country confidently meeting global challenges. For its advocates, Global Britain is about connecting with “old friends and new allies” helping forge for Britain “a new place for itself in the world”, outside the restrictive confines of the EU.

With the enthusiastic backing of buccaneering Brexiters such as Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018, government officials dutifully set about institutionalising Global Britain by gathering the key documents to inform audiences how Global Britain is to become practiced “reality”. In 2018 the government announced the creation of a Global Britain Board “to coordinate Global Britain activity across departments, agencies and our overseas network”. Ministers and diplomats were kept on a tight rein, message-wise, hoping to enthuse stakeholders by stressing that this was a “moral mission” as well as an interest-driven recalibration of Britain’s international relationships.

The Boy’s Book of Battles by Eric Wood, 1912. Photo: Jock Livre via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Like all attempts to inject novelty into British foreign policy (think back to the scepticism that greeted New Labour’s “ethical dimension” to foreign policy in 1997) the reaction to Global Britain has been mixed at best. Outside government, Global Britain has won support from influential right-leaning think-tanks such as The Henry Jackson Society, which see in it an opportunity to challenge the narrative of Britain’s economic and geopolitical decline after Brexit. Even commentators not necessarily reconciled to Brexit have given Global Britain a cautious welcome, suggesting it has some potential over the long-term.

Generally, however, Global Britain has been received with a great deal more hostility. A few examples illustrate the breadth and tenor of the criticisms levelled against it. First, over a series of reports, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee judged that Global Britain risked being a mere “slogan” devoid of “substance”. Second, the FCO’s former Permanent Under Secretary, Peter Ricketts, asserted that Global Britain “would do little to solve the question of Britain’s world role”.

Third, a report into the take-up of Global Britain at the United Nations surmised that “there is still no clarity on what Global Britain might mean, even from a UK perspective”. Finally, even some of the government’s most avid Global Britain enthusiasts admitted in 2019 they were still “scratching our heads and thinking about Global Britain”.

What is it about Global Britain that inspires such levels of confusion at home and exasperation abroad? To answer this question involves an account of what Global Britain is trying to be as a point of departure for thinking about Britain’s future role in the world. For although Global Britain is undoubtedly still a work in progress, the narrative it is putting in place inadvertently reveals a lot about its “inner workings” as a vision of foreign policy.

As with all foreign policy strategies, Global Britain interweaves two elements: on the one hand, a list of policy goals; on the other, a narrative that supplies the “vision” “meaning” and “rationale” behind those practices. I suggest that we interpret Global Britain as being built on four pillars of activity. They have remained constant since May spelled them out in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech.

  • a free trade agreement with the EU
  • trade agreements with countries outside the EU to replace those Britain had courtesy of its EU membership, notably the US
  • a far-reaching science and innovation pact with the EU” to maintain and promote the UK’s soft power globally
  • finally, in the realm of “hard power”, cooperation on crime, terrorism and foreign affairs, including the actions of hostile states such as Russia.

The four pillars repackage familiar, post-1945 British foreign policy traditions such as Atlanticism and the importance of the Commonwealth as outlets for the exercise of Britain’s international agency. Both have, historically, been rated well above Britain’s attachment to European integration, even by notionally “pro-European” governments.

Indeed, in or outside the EU, Britain’s grand strategy has always been to maintain a global leadership position in which “Europe” has played an ambiguous role at best. In Global Britain-speak, Brexit means not a change not of direction (which such a violent rupture might have been expected to inspire) but only of tactic. What will change with Brexit, rather, is the nature of the institutional settings through which Britain’s global “mission” must now play out.

Global Britain’s true novelty is on the narrative side: the discursive means by which the policies are packaged for domestic and international consumption in a story about where Britain is “going” as an international actor. In this respect, narrative analysis of Global Britain speeches and policy documents shows that it puts a very strong, Conservative Eurosceptic twist on an otherwise familiar linguistic repertoire, constructing Britain as both different and crucially, better than the EU.

For unwittingly or otherwise, Global Britain scripts the EU as an enemy, another continental opponent to be faced down in Churchillian fashion. This framing makes Britain the “hero” of a Boys Own Brexit movie: the “Great Escape” from the “shackles” of the “Brussels” prison, as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt described the plot in September 2018. The frequent refrain in Global Britain discourse that Britain is a “beacon” of tolerance and virtue contrasts bluntly with depictions of the EU as a place “darkened by the shadows of protectionism”. On escaping from its EU prison, the story goes, Britain is once more travelling towards the light and embracing lost global friends and family members.

Global Britain’s metaphorical imagination thus gives the game away. It is well known that the Conservative Party has been cooling on the idea of European integration for decades. Brexit has opened clear space for the articulation of hard Euroscepticism as the driving theme of British foreign policy. Global Britain is, in sum, a negative, defensive narrative that spells out what Britain is not (any more an EU member). But it does little to spell out a positive vision beyond a commitment to “believing” in Britain’s new role in the world.

Lacking a firm basis in policy achievements and an even less well developed narrative, it remains to be seen how far Global Britain can be a useful heuristic for marketing Britain’s role in the world after Brexit. Domestic and international stakeholders certainly remain to be convinced about its utility and applicability to the vast Brexit challenges that lie ahead. Depicting the EU as a prison will also do little to help the negotiations on the future trade agreement on which the success of Global Britain assuredly hangs.

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Note: This article originally appeared at our sister site, LSE Brexit. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. The research was drawn from an accepted manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Global Affairs in March 2019, available online.

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About the author

Oliver Daddow – University of Nottingham
Oliver Daddow (@oliver_daddow) is Assistant Professor in British Politics and Security at the University of Nottingham and researched this while an Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge.

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