All posts by astonandrew

I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Aston University in the UK.

Global Britain: Myths, Reality and Post-Brexit Foreign Policy

On 15 January 2019 the Aston Centre for Europe, in cooperation with the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) organized a seminar to explore the UK’s role in the World post-Brexit. The event was co-funded by the ACE Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence award.

The centre has been funded with support from the European Commission. This webpage and the publications of the centre reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


  • Dr Judi Atkins, Lecturer in Politics, Aston University
  • Dr Andrew Glencross, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University
  • Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP, former Culture Secretary and FPC Political Council Member

Chair: Henry Mance, Political Correspondent, Financial Times

Here Dr Judi Atkins reflects on the national myths, narratives and realities that underpin the UK’s conception of its role the world and shape our understanding of what the future a ‘Global Britain’ might be:

Even though Brexit has unsettled perceptions of Britain’s role in the world, there remains a great deal of continuity between the government’s vision of ‘Global Britain’ and older national narratives. Throughout the post-war period, successive governments have depicted Britain as an important player on the world stage, a small island that ‘punches above its weight’ by virtue of its membership of organisations such as NATO, the UN Security Council and (for the time being at least) the EU, as well as its ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Underpinning this narrative of Britain as an exceptional nation is the legacy of Empire, a nostalgia that also informs conceptions of Britain’s role and standing in the world after Brexit.

Setting out her vision of Global Britain at Lancaster House in January 2017, Theresa May asserted that the EU referendum result was a vote to become ‘even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit’. After all, despite a common European heritage, she claimed, Britain is distinct from other member states because it has ‘always looked beyond Europe to the wider world’. To strengthen this contrast, May then called attention to Britain’s different political traditions:

Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance … and we have little history of coalition government (

May thus drew on the exceptionalism narrative to create rhetorical distance from Europe, while at the same time suggesting that a Britain unshackled from EU membership would be free to fulfil its internationalist destiny.

Given the extent of globalisation, critics have described May’s commitment to leave both the EU and the single market as a ‘national act of self-harm on an epic scale’ ( However, May herself was confident of success, on the grounds that Britain has:

One of the world’s largest and strongest economies. With the finest intelligence services, the bravest armed forces, the most effective hard and soft power, and friendships, partnerships and alliances in every continent. And another thing that’s important … The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen (

As a nation with these ‘exceptional’ qualities and assets, therefore, Britain would be uniquely able to make its own way in the world after Brexit.

So, what form would Britain’s international relationships take? For senior Conservatives like David Davis and Michael Gove, Brexit affords an opportunity to negotiate free trade agreements with the ‘Anglosphere’ – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK – and the US. Others, such as Liam Fox, seek to reinvigorate trading relations with the Commonwealth nations, and particularly with India ( These visions are, of course, consistent with May’s definition of Global Britain as ‘a country that reaches out to old friends and new allies alike’ ( However, critics suggest that they are founded on ‘a nostalgia-infused, post-imperial “amnesia”’ (, one that also permeates the exceptionalism narrative that underlies the government’s conception of Global Britain.

If Britain is to make these relationships work, it must approach its ‘old friends’ (i.e. the governments of Commonwealth countries) on an equal footing. This would require a profound shift in its self-image, an honest reappraisal of Britain and its place in the world. In an age of post-truth politics, where stories trump facts and storytellers are eagerly granted a hearing while experts are derided, the challenges involved in such a re-examination are clear. It may well take a direct confrontation with the realities of Brexit for Britain to find the humility needed to do this.


On 25 March 2017 EU Heads of State and Government celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document for the project of “ever closer union” that eventually became the European Union. The United Kingdom, however, was absent at the festivities, just as it was when the document was signed in 1957. Skipping this diamond jubilee was perfectly logical given that on 23 June 2016 British voters decided to leave the club.

But despite the lavish setting at the Palazzo dei Conservatori that boasts a façade designed by Michelangelo, this was not a moment of unbridled joy for EU leaders. Rather, it is a time of profound soul-searching about the future of European integration. In this context, Brexit is a symptom more than a cause as the difficulties of devising and justifying more cooperation are felt across Europe. The UK’s absence though is strategically problematic as the country has so much at stake in any re-foundation of the EU project.

To coincide with the anniversary, European federalists organized a March for Europe on 24 March. This initiative comes on the back of a call by various European public figures to turn the EU into a fully-fledged majoritarian form of government that would transcend national interests. The chances of this happening are very slim because EU leaders worry first and foremost about their national electorates. Nevertheless, the EU is at a cross-roads when it comes to delivering on expectations that integration makes countries better equipped to tackle policy challenges together.

Thinking about Europe’s future comes under the job description of the European Commission. It recently published a White Paper outlining five scenarios for the evolution of the EU, which was discussed at the meeting of the European Council in Rome. The federalist option is one of these scenarios, alongside a re-focus on the single market, a carrying on as now option, a less is more approach, and a multi-speed model.

Whichever path is pursued will matter greatly to the UK. What the EU will look like in the future will be of great significance now that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has declared her intention to seek a new referendum on Scottish independence. Will voters in Scotland who would have preferred to stick with the EU status quo be more or less enthusiastic for membership if integration is just about the single market? An a la carte EU is definitely in line with the ruling Scottish National Party’s desire to retain an opt-out from Economic and Monetary Union.

Keeping the pound is a perfectly plausible scenario for an independent Scotland, if the EU agrees. However, it cannot be done without acknowledging Westminster and the Bank of England’s demands. With the euro as an object lesson in poorly designed currency union before them, British policy-makers will be at pains to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Breaking up the Union will leave Scotland facing the prospect of a sterling currency area that is as much of a straightjacket for public finances as the euro.

Moreover, the strength of European unity will greatly affect the outcome of future UK-EU relations. A cluster of major foreign policy issues will depend on close cooperation between Brussels and London, most significantly, security cooperation and global trade. The known unknown in this context is the need for a new institutional architecture to make such cooperation work. That is why the UK government’s White Paper on Brexit spends considerable time discussing the subject. Yet a lack of European unity could jeopardise the EU’s ability to create a sufficiently robust framework. At the same time, a strong shared commitment stemming from a move towards federal-style integration could make the EU’s demands on matters such as regulatory equivalence problematic for the UK to comply with.

Discretion is, admittedly, a key part of diplomacy. But by avoiding rubbing shoulders with fellow heads of state and government when the champagne was flowing, Theresa May put more distance between her government and its negotiation partners. In many ways, Brexit is a consequence of the evolution of the EU because as competences were transferred a vocal minority of British Eurosceptics came to dominate the European debate in the absence of any pro-EU voices. It would be a mistake, following the triggering of Article 50, for British policy-makers to fail to understand the future direction of the EU.

This blog is part of the ERASMUS+ project AwarEU