UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

The “global Britain” mantra was adopted by Theresa May at the 2016 Conservative party conference in an attempt to define the country’s post-Brexit relationship with the world. According to the Foreign Office, it means “investing in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage”.  

The fact that this is what postwar Britain has always done, or tried to do, has not deterred Boris Johnson from pretending it is a new idea. Yet his government has repeatedly failed to articulate coherent strategies for realising these laudable aims. At a time when key relationships with the US, Europe and China face enormous strain, this lack of vision and direction is very damaging.

The row over an expected £4bn cut to the overseas aid budget perfectly illustrates the lack of joined-up thinking. As former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have warned, such budgetary vandalism would seriously weaken Britain’s soft power and international influence while breaking solemn commitments to less fortunate people and countries.

Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and blinkered Tory MPs who previously questioned the legally binding commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid should heed their warnings and those of 187 UK charities and aid organisations. “When 115-million people look set to be pushed back into extreme poverty, now is the time for an international, collaborative response to Covid-19,” they said in an open letter.

The chronic absence of thought-through strategy is also apparent in last week’s defence announcement, peppered with grandiose Johnsonian claims and headline-catching wheezes. To allocate a whopping £16.5bn to defence, on top of the annual inflation-proofed budget of £41.5bn, without explaining how this makes citizens safer or how it will be funded, is irresponsible. It is insulting to all those who measure security by our society’s ability, for example, to provide free school meals, reduce poverty, provide decent education and housing, halt Britain’s Covid-19 nightmare, and keep its foreign aid promises.

“Global Britain” does not mean Britain against the world. In a complex international arena, the focus must be on shared values, co-operation, alliances, soft power and integration, especially with the EU. In pronouncing on the future, Johnson shows he is stuck in the past. /London, November 22

The Observer

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