The UK must now concentrate on unseen destabilising forces for the Integrated Review
Then foreign-secretary Boris Johnson delivers a speech in London, where he warned the world risks slipping back into a “brutal” era, December 2016 | PA Images
The UK is at a crossroads. After almost 50 years of membership, it will leave the European Union and begin a new chapter. From 1 January 2021 , Great Britain will no longer be part of a 28 strong political union – the second largest economy in the world, and the world’s largest trading bloc – but instead a small, sovereign, archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean.
To encapsulate this rebirth, the Government has deployed the slogan Global Britain. Despite it being used vociferously since 2016 by successive prime ministers and foreign secretaries, the slogan remains ambiguous and devoid of tangible detail.
To help give this slogan substance, the Government launched the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Due to conclude in the autumn, the review pledges to be the widest ranging since the Cold War, setting the agenda for this new dawn in British politics.
The issues the review will consider are colossal but convoluted. Whereas once the principal threat posed was by a visible nuclear arms stalemate, the UK must nowadays concentrate on the destabilising forces that present themselves imperceptibly: disinformation; airborne viruses; rising global temperatures.
The UK must decide how to react to these new challenges, as well as safeguard against old threats
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s long awaited Russia Report painted a stark picture of Russian interference in the UK. The arm of the Kremlin is now reaching into the highest levels of UK politics and business, the report argues, with disinformation, corruption, and direct sabotage becoming the new “normal”.
The Government is attempting to strengthen cyber security and is helping to lead the way on online harms – but the problem requires constant vigilance as it rapidly evolves and shapeshifts.
The Russia threat still also exists outside of the internet, including a nerve agent attack carried out on UK soil in 2018, and Putin illegally annexing sovereign states and aiding dictators as they barrel bomb their own civilians or stifle democratic freedoms. These acts of aggression have been sustained in part because of the West’s inability to counter them with anything other than targeted sanctions or verbal condemnation.
Similarly, whilst concerns around China’s influence in the UK’s technology networks have been recognised by the Government, the Integrated Review will need to decide how the UK will react to this emerging superpower’s gross human rights abuses and violations of international treaties.
The UK Government’s reaction to Beijing’s encroachment into Hong Kong received cross party support, but it has so far done little to address the discovery of concentration camps in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being persecuted. The foreign secretary correctly labelled this persecution a “gross and egregious” human rights abuse, but these comments must be followed up by substantive and coordinated action by the international community if they are to prevent such crimes from continuing.
The establishment of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations regime in July 2020 was a bold decision by the UK Government and demonstrated its ambition to defend and promote human rights globally. This work can be built on in the Integrated Review, with the Foreign Office taking up a world leading role in promoting human rights, as well as promoting and enabling democracy to flourish in countries under repressive regimes.
A truly Global Britain must also have development at its core
The alleviation of poverty and access to education, work, and healthcare are fundamental ingredients in making a nation secure and prosperous. Although the decision to dissolve the Department for International Development – and amalgamate it into the Foreign Office – has pre-empted the Integrated Review, there is still scope within it to outline the priorities of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and put development at its heart.
Overseas aid funding should be targeted, transparent and generous. The UK Government must be careful that the purpose of development spending is maintained in the merger and ensure it does not become transactional. The use of overseas aid as leverage is not only morally questionable, it can have disastrous ramifications as the Pergau Dam scandal showed. Making other nation states safer via humanitarian spending, makes the UK safer.
Similarly, the impact climate change will have on the developing world cannot be overstated in terms of scale and urgency and the review must address this. Climate change, if not properly tackled, will lead to mass displacement and natural disasters such as droughts, famine and disease – and this instability will naturally raise the potential for conflict and a refugee crisis on a scale not seen before.
The challenges Britain faces when it steps out alone on the world stage in 2021 are seismic and should not be underplayed. The world is in an unstable place, in the midst of a pandemic, and at a precipice with climate change. The next decade will be critical for the future of internationalism and globalisation, but the UK has a unique opportunity to put itself at the heart of this challenge and lead the way in human rights, development and security.
Laura Hutchinson is Head of UK BI Consultancy and Dods principal political consultant