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 (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech).
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’ (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/03/britain-being-led-to-epic-act-self-harm-brexit). 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 (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech).
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 (https://theconversation.com/beyond-brexit-global-britain-looks-to-the-emerging-anglosphere-for-new-opportunities-77562). 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’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech). However, critics suggest that they are founded on ‘a nostalgia-infused, post-imperial “amnesia”’ (https://theconversation.com/beyond-brexit-global-britain-looks-to-the-emerging-anglosphere-for-new-opportunities-77562), 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.