Will ‘Little England’ or ‘Global Britain’ prevail in 2021?
Whether “Global Britain” or “Little England” becomes the more powerful political narrative across the UK post-Brexit will help define the country’s politics in 2021 and beyond.
There were diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU. Some more isolationist leave voters focused on the costs and constraints of EU membership, including the issue of UK financial contributions to the budget of Brussels, which could now be redirected to domestic ends.
However, other Brexiteers voted for a quite different vision of a buccaneering hyper-global UK that could now double-down with countries outside the EU. If Prime Minister Boris Johnson gets his way, it will be this Global Britain narrative in the ascendancy in 2021 by showcasing the nation’s continued international leadership.
As a step toward this ambition, Johnson last month pledged some £16.5 billion ($22 billion) for increased defense spending in the next few years. But his Global Britain plans go well beyond military to diplomacy, with London in 2021 chairing the UN Security Council from February, holding the rotating G7 presidency from January, and hosting the UN-led summit on climate change.
Johnson’s defense spending pledge comes as part of what he asserts is one of the most sweeping UK defense and security reviews since the end of the Cold War. And in his first trip to India as prime minister in January, he will seek to push forward a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
Yet despite Johnson’s Global Britain ambitions, there are also political pressures to retrench internationally, especially given the country’s strained finances post-pandemic. One early sign of this was the decision of the UK government last month to reduce its commitment to international aid from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.
One other development that will help determine whether the UK becomes more inward-looking post-Brexit are the threats to its territorial integrity. Post-Brexit, these threats are at the highest level in modern political times.
Yet despite Johnson’s Global Britain ambitions, there are also political pressures to retrench internationally, especially given the country’s strained finances post-pandemic
Ground zero is Scotland, where recent polls indicate record high levels of support for independence, including one by Ipsos Mori in October with 58 percent. Support for independence is reflected in the voting intention numbers for May’s Holyrood ballot. A survey last week from The Scotsman/Savanta ComRes indicates that the Scottish National Party (SNP) will probably win a commanding majority and possibly every constituency seat except one.
This could be a political game-changer, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon pressuring the reluctant UK government to approve another independence referendum after the last, failed one in 2014. London can technically block a second plebiscite, but this may become politically indefensible if the SNP win big in May.
Sturgeon claims that this will “make the case for Scotland to become an independent country, and seek a clear endorsement of Scotland’s right to choose our own future.” Sadly, it is increasingly possible that the 2020s could therefore, tragically, witness the unraveling of one of the world’s longest and most successful political unions.
Brexit is the immediate context for this unfolding political drama, given that the vast majority (62 percent) of the Scottish electorate voted in 2016 to remain in the EU. Sturgeon has highlighted what she calls the “self-sabotage” of Brexit, saying it “strengthens the case for Scotland becoming an independent country.”
This is a potential tragedy in the making, for despite the understandable disappointment of Sturgeon and many Scottish voters at the 2016 Brexit vote, she risks leading Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales down a path that will probably weaken all parties, given that their future is better together.
On the foreign front, the wider UK would be damaged by Scottish independence. For instance, a UK parliamentary committee has warned that losing the Scottish tax base could lead to further budgetary cuts to international activities, including the armed forces.
The UK’s extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions will also be impacted, eroding the country’s post-Brexit voice in international forums such as the UN, G7, G20 and NATO. Together with military cutbacks, this will undermine both hard and soft power, which has enabled the nation to punch above its weight for so long.
This is why, with growing political risks over the integrity of the union, the case needs to be made again in 2021 for why the future of Scotland and the UK is better together. At a time when Johnson is seeking to promote Global Britain, Scottish departure from the union threatens to undermine the sizeable political, military and economic force that the UK has preserved, and which has helped bolster international security and prosperity.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.