Article Published March 16th, 2021
This article was first published by the Scottish Centre on European Relations
The UK government’s integrated defence and foreign policy review is about to see the light of day. Some of its likely approach is already clear. ‘Global Britain’ may be a mixture of post-Brexit ideology, imperial power nostalgia and an attempt to establish a foreign policy now the UK is outside the EU. But none of it is likely to go down well in Scotland for a mixture of reasons.
It’s been suggested that the strategic review will not be as nostalgic and unrealistic as to suggest the UK is a global power at the level of the US or China – or indeed of the EU, though the review is likely to deliberately avoid admitting that the EU is a major global player at all. But some of the ideological positioning is already very clear.
‘Global’ Britain, according to Boris Johnson’s view, can become some sort of global power-broker, a convener of important democracies around the world, now ‘freed’ from the essentially non-existent constraints the EU places on member states’ foreign policy. What appears to be important to the UK government’s ideology here is to present the UK as a major global player, if not power, that is not tied, in its economic, security and foreign policy interests, to the EU.
So we hear of UK foreign policy taking a tilt to the Indo-Pacific region – quite a stretch for a medium-sized European state about to reduce the size of its army. We hear how influential the UK is because it happens to be chairing the G7 this year (but not next) or hosting the big COP26 climate summit in the autumn (a summit where the EU and US are now strongly coordinating on strategic goals for the summit). The UK government signals its pretensions to bringing together a group of D10 democracies – as if such a grouping could not be coordinated by any one or several of its states together.
And we see that the UK government is keen on occasion to liaise with France and Germany – the E3 of leading European players – while simultaneously denying that the EU is a major and much more influential player than the UK can aspire to be in most dimensions of international policy (not least trade, climate and aid). During the EU-UK trade talks, Boris Johnson deliberately, and ideologically, refused a structured foreign policy relationship with the EU post-Brexit. At other points, the UK will and is acting together with the ‘5 eyes’ grouping of Australia, Canada, new Zealand, the UK and US.
Having constructive relationships with European and other democracies round the world is surely an important part of any UK (or other similar European states) foreign policy. But deliberately establishing a foreign policy in a way that denies the UK’s geographical, economic, political and cultural base and alliances in Europe will almost inevitably not properly cater to, and may undermine, the UK’s real foreign and security policy interests. It is a partially illusory and ideological policy. The pettiness of it has already been seen in the relabeling of the European health insurance card as a global one (that for now only applies to EU states) or refusing to continue in the Erasmus exchange programme. It is Brexit ideology driving UK foreign policy.
Scotland and ‘Global Britain’
The global Britain ideology-turned-foreign policy looks designed to appeal to a subset of mainly English voters, not least Brexit-supporting ones. It is a very Tory English view – or pretence. In remain-voting Scotland, it is likely to appeal to rather few indeed.
The 62% who voted remain in Scotland in 2016 are unlikely to welcome the ignoring of the European Union in the setting out of the UK’s new foreign and security policy, nor the reluctance to admit that the UK is a European state whose most important relationships are and have been with other European countries, as well as with the US. And a third or so of those who voted leave in Scotland, also supported independence, so this group too is unlikely to find a pseudo-global, anti-European foreign policy attractive. Even that group which supports both Brexit and staying in the UK may not find the confrontational stance the UK is taking to its post-Brexit relationship with the EU welcome.
There are other issues here too. Foreign policy may be reserved to UK level but Scotland has plenty of international interests and policies. In terms of exports, eight out of Scotland’s top ten trade partners are in the EU and European Economic Area (with the US its most important individual exporting destination but the EU as a whole dwarfing that three times over). An Indo-Pacific tilt while putting in place a hard border with the EU is not a foreign policy reflecting Scotland’s interests or political goals. The damage to migration between Scotland and the EU, now free movement has come to an end, is likewise unwelcome.
There may be some areas of agreement. Prioritising climate change and making a success of COP26 in Glasgow in November is one: but close UK government cooperation with the Scottish government on this doesn’t appear to be the order of the day any more than it was during EU-UK trade talks. Both UK and Scottish governments emphasise defending human rights. But the miscalculations that are likely to spring from a ‘global Britain’ making loud statements without close cooperation with its European allies is not a choice the Scottish government would be likely to welcome. Meanwhile, ‘global Britain’ with its damaging and unprincipled overseas aid cuts is a stark contrast to the focus in Scotland on what it can positively do in the context of its own, albeit limited, development aid policies.
There is a broader issue here around size, scale and power. The UK government may be deliberately trying to ‘big up’ its global clout. But the UK remains a serious international player on the same level as France, both with their (anachronistic) seats on the UN Security Council. In contrast, an independent Scotland, a small state of five million people, will have to centre its foreign policy on its alliances – and can learn much from looking not least at some of its closest neighbours such as Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland as well as at emerging EU foreign policy cooperation.
Even under the current status quo of devolution within the UK, the foreign and international policy discussion and outlook in Scotland is very different to that heard in London. There is a natural tendency to look to Ireland and the Nordic neighbours – both to build good, interactive relations and to see what policy lessons can be shared (even if these are at a more granular level than the broad strategic sweep of foreign policy). The Scottish and Irish governments produced a joint bilateral review late last year. And the Scottish government published its own European strategy review early in 2020. The Scottish government does have ‘hubs’ in Berlin, Paris and Brussels – as well as in Dublin. But again the outlook and question for those offices is how to relate to bigger states and organisations as a smaller, democratic European country rather than how to piggy-back on ‘global’ Britain’s reach.
That ‘global Britain’ may not be well received in a pro-European Scotland is perhaps not surprising. But it raises many questions. The UK government claims it wants to make the case for the union. But in its approach to foreign policy, just as with Brexit, it is doing no such thing. Labour talks about radical federalism; but if foreign policy is retained at UK level, there are difficult questions to answer about how to deal with stark differences between UK and Scottish views on international policy (including on Europe).
There are questions too for an independent Scotland as well as for managing international relations today. How would an independent Scotland’s foreign and security policies take account of having such a big neighbour, with a different foreign policy, next door on the same island? How would the two relate inside NATO (assuming an independent Scotland did join)? How would an independent Scotland inside the EU deal with a UK that might still have a fractious relationship with Europe (though in 5 years time that could look different and more positive). Again, Scotland could learn a lot from its neighbours, not least Ireland, on how to handle having a bigger neighbour next door.
Boris Johnson’s ‘global Britain’ ideology is about to be translated into a new UK foreign policy. But it will be a foreign policy that is designed with an English nationalist outlook and mindful of English Brexit voters (and Tory backbenchers). Scotland will be alienated from such a policy. And the various degrees of separation that exist between England and Scotland look set to deepen further as the ‘global Britain’ ship sets sail.