What will Brexit Britain do differently? This is going to be the most important question in our politics for the next decade. If the answer is that nothing much will change, it would be hard to argue that the disruption of the past four and a half years has been worth it. But if Brexit means the country becomes quicker at adapting to changing circumstances, then the electorate’s decision in 2016 will have been vindicated.
The quick decision to remove VAT from tampons and sanitary towels is a small, early sign of how Brexit enables parliament to respond more directly to public pressure. The decision not to join the EU’s vaccine procurement programme let us move faster with immunisation: the UK has currently vaccinated more people than France, Italy and Germany put together. If this saves lives and allows us to exit lockdown more quickly, there will be a substantial benefit.
Perhaps the biggest question is what kind of role this country will now play in the world. Since the referendum result, Boris Johnson has enthusiastically talked up the rather nebulous idea of ‘global Britain’, to try to show that Brexit does not mean retreat. He wants to use the UK’s 2021 presidency of the G7 and this year’s COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow to demonstrate what this soundbite actually means. He hopes to launch the D10, an alliance of democracies that share an interest in countering China. Australia, South Korea and India have been invited to the G7 meeting to this end; Downing Street hopes that this will demonstrate the UK’s convening power.
COP26 in November is meant to show the UK’s commitment to multilateralism and ability to deliver an effective summit. Last week’s decision to move Alok Sharma from his role as Business Secretary to take charge of this conference full-time is an admission that it needs more work. But the election of Joe Biden and China’s decision to commit to net zero by 2060 mean that the event has a fair wind behind it, and a decent chance of success.
Meanwhile, the strengthening of Britain’s stance on China continues, and in ways that are hard to dismiss as tokenism. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, this week condemned the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, saying they are subjected to ‘forced labour, torture, forced sterilisation’ and more. Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, noted that the Modern Slavery Act forbids British companies from buying goods which may have, in part, been produced by forced labour. Most of China’s cotton, she said, comes from Xinjiang. The UK guidance has been strengthened in an effort to make sure nothing made by forced labour in China ends up in Britain.
Some argued that Brexit Britain would have to subordinate everything in its foreign policy to economics and the need for trade deals. Instead, last summer there was an about-turn over the plans to have Huawei — a company with close links to the People’s Liberation Army — play a key role in the UK’s 5G network. As one figure closely involved in the formation of this policy puts it: ‘The entire period has revealed China’s preferences more clearly. Look at cyberspace, Hong Kong, military basing.’ There is a recognition that this demands a response.
All this is designed to send a message to the incoming administration in Washington: the UK will put principles before profit even at the expense of the inevitable economic retaliation from Beijing. The EU, meanwhile, is still pursuing a David Cameron-style policy of seeking Chinese investment. Look, for instance, at the recent economic treaty with Beijing (a policy which, ironically, Britain encouraged while it was an EU member state). One cabinet minister tells me the EU deal with Beijing, heavily pushed by the Germans during their presidency of the EU Council, ‘shows the EU isn’t going in the same direction as us on China’ and remarks that it’ll be ‘interesting to see what the Biden administration thinks about that’.
Some hawks in government want to go even further. One tells me: ‘The big pitch to Biden should be to break the Chinese domination in tech. We need to move these companies out of China.’ Interestingly — and in contrast to the Trump administration — the primary motivation isn’t to bring this manufacturing back to the West, but simply to shift it out of China. This will likely require an alternative mass manufacturing hub in Asia.
There is significant interest in Whitehall in how Samsung, the South Korean electronics firm, is increasing its presence in Vietnam. Although Vietnam doesn’t qualify for D10 membership — it’s a communist dictatorship, not a democracy — the country is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the UK wants to join. It has its own concerns about Chinese expansionism and isn’t seeking to undermine the global system in the way Beijing is.
The UK is determined to become more involved in the Indo-Pacific region in the coming years. This is where a lot of economic and strategic action will be as efforts are made to counter China’s rise. The UK also has similar views on the rules-based international order to the East Asian democracies; one of Raab’s favourite facts is that no country’s voting record is closer to the UK in international organisations than South Korea’s.
Ultimately, though, the most important security alliance for the UK will remain with the US. The incoming Biden administration is far more interested in diplomacy than Trump’s, which wasn’t inclined to try to build consensus on an issue before acting. Britain will have a role to play in the rejuvenation and broadening of the western alliance. The Brexit deal makes this far easier. If we had left with no deal, UK-EU relations would have soured, which would have been bad for regional security, and the acrimony would have complicated dealings with the Biden White House.
Britain will need strong relations with the US, the EU, like-minded powers such as Canada and Australia, and the Asian democracies. Having left the EU, and the protection that being a member of a large bloc affords, the UK has a particular need for the current threats to the liberal rules-based order to be overcome. That can only happen if all these groups work together.