I shan’t begin this article with another one of those long winded and pseudo-intellectual “Following Britains momentous decision to leave the European Union“, because it isn’t necessary. What appears to my mind to be most necessary is to explain why the UK matters to the World, Realms & Commonwealth. Even the most audacious and well thought through plan for the UK’s future global relationships and networks relies on our partners and allies with whom we work: The UK cannot do much by itself and it would be worth considering why nations would want to work with the UK, even post Brexit.
Last week at work in a WWII museum I had an interesting conversation that somehow culminated in the Commonwealth. The youngish person I was working with (probably in her thirties) wasn’t sure even if we should call the association the Commonwealth anymore as it might have been something outdated and Imperial. When informed that the Commonwealth was the official name of the body, her position was that they were indeed historically key to our victory in the second world war and should be treated better than they are now.
This brings me to the main point of this article: The Commonwealth, and especially the Realms and CANZUK have a lot to offer to the UK, and the UK, in most cases unknowingly, has a lot to offer to the Commonwealth, Realms and even the other three CANZUK nations. The UK no longer has the global strength it had 100 or even 50 years ago, but we do still posses a lot of advantages and edges in the global marketplace and community and I do believe we need to be reminded of it on occasion.
The UK is the world leader in soft power projection. This refers to the ability to get other nations to work together or change their policies by peaceful means, as opposed to either war, or threatened military action.
London is one of the two main international banking centres in the world. The UK has a nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As a nation we donate the second largest amount in foreign aid; more than half of the United States’ donations. We have the fifth largest national GDP , and somewhere between the 19th to 13th when GDP is calculated per capita. We have the fifth largest defence budget, and the third largest pharmaceutical and aviation industry in the world. We are seventh on the ease of doing business list and employment is at record levels.
Of course, not everything in the UK is rosy – that is clear to anyone who lives or visits the UK. The deficit is still £58 billion, and it is painfully obvious we have not invested the funds in ensuring council high-rises have sufficient fire prevention equipment retrofitted. The UK’s growth rate, which last year was the highest in the OECD, has become the lowest in Europe for the first quarter of 2017.
The goal of showing both these sets of statistics is to show how the UK can be seen to have a strong and weak hand – we are weak compared to what we can be, but we are strong as a nation. Too often we are aware of the former, but not the latter.
Economics & Trade:
I do not intend to give credence to economic jingoism, but rather to show why the UK remains an asset to many countries around the globe. When he was the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna wrote that:
The response from the Nigerian and Ghanaian business community is: “Where are the Brits? Where have you been? You are historically, and still are, our preferred partner. You are reliable, you produce a quality product, we like your legal system and you deliver on time. But where have you been at the time when all have been coming to invest here? The British brand abroad is much stronger than we realise” (Hewish, 65). This is especially the case for developing nations, which are still developing their trade network.
For many nations, the UK offers a market for exportable goods, a capable centre for attracting investment and finance and the framework for most international legal contracts. The UK needs to notice the advantages it has had “grandfathered in”, to be able to use them. It needs to use them to ensure we leave Brexit stronger and in a better position than when we were a part of the European Union.
According to research by Tim Hewish and James Cleverly MP, the UK is the primary EU destination for Canada, Australia, New Zealand (the CANZUK nations) along with South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Jamaica (Cleverly & Hewish, 6). Therefore, a new bilateral trading arrangement would be sought by all parties and should be treated with the necessary importance.
Further, it is acknowledged that when a small and a large nation sign a trade agreement, the smaller nation benefits more than the larger one. The larger nation benefits also, but to a lesser extent. For the UK, signing trade deals with the smaller realms will provide added benefits outside of pure trade: international solidarity and friendly connections in the UN and other associations.
The United Kingdom is a large market to enter: the fifth largest global economy with a value of $2.73 trillion. That alone is a remarkable sum, and one which would interest many nations and firms. Part of the promise of Brexit was that we could be more flexible in our development and signing of trade agreements with many other nations, and this needs to be achieved: little will have been achieved by merely replacing petty-minded bureaucrats in Brussels with petty-minded bureaucrats in London.
We have focused on the benefits of the Commonwealth Effect for the UK seeking to export to the Commonwealth, but the reverse also applies. It would be easier for any nation using the English language and a legal system based off the Common Law to trade with the UK than with a nation without these advantages. The Commonwealth Secretariat came to the conclusion that trade was 19% easier with a fellow Commonwealth nation than with another one.
For our non-Commonwealth allies, the UK would of course remain very much open; now is the time to strike a deal, reorganise relationships and sign agreements. If ever a time was for the UK to be more than usually “open for business” it is now. For those concerned with much of the UK’s infrastructure being out-dated and a drawback, it will be noted that part of the “winning” manifesto from the Conservatives was to build a third runway at Heathrow airport, which was calculated to bring in up to £1.2 billion per year. For shipping of goods, the new London Gateway port near Dartford is continuing to expand according to its plans and offers an advanced, 21st Century container port capable of serving London and the greater British market. If the Conservatives could be convinced to cancel funding for HS2, but rather invest in the Thames Hub and modernising the whole of the UK’s rail network with a few new lines as laid out in High Speed UK’s excellent and well thought through proposals we could see truly infrastructure planning for the 21st Century under way. This form of long-term planning would have been common to our Victorian predecessors, but appears to have been lost somewhere between us and them.
To wrap up why the UK is such a good place for businesses, I will end with a de facto quote from a Romanian waitress at a delicious Italian restaurant in the town of Westerham, off the M25 and M23. I asked her why she left Italy to come here, when she had a well paid job in Rome. “There are opportunities; you can succeed in the UK. If you work hard, you are promoted and have a career“; in Italy, it seemed that it wasn’t what you knew but who you knew. To this particular lady, the UK presented a country where hard work paid off and was rewarded. I think little higher praise can be given, apart from ensuring this remains the case.
Defence, Deterrence and Security
Yet the UK does not offer mere economic benefits to its allies. In 1981 the British colony of Belize was granted independence. They chose to remain a realm and the Guatemalan government claimed the right to annex the entire fledgling nation. Upon being asked to remain, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces protected the right of the citizens of Belize to self-determination and nationhood between 1981 and 2011. Due to recent increases in border tensions, the government of Belize requested the British Army return, which they did in 2015. The base, known as “British Army Training and Support Unit Belize” or ‘BATSUB’, is currently capable of training up to 2,000 UK forces in jungle warfare annually, and provides an effective deterrent to Guatemalan aggression.
The first step in any security is deterrence and diplomacy. As mentioned previously, the UK is the world’s top or second largest soft power nation. This is bolstered by being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which would provide its allies with the ability to veto unfriendly Security Council Resolutions. This “service” is performed by the US and Russia for its partners and so is by no means unusual, even if it is not what the UN was originally formed to do. The UK is the sixth largest arms exporter also, when more immediately effective forms of defence are needed also.
For more vigorous deterrence, the UK’s defence review outlines the ability to deploy up to two divisions in extremis, with a primary reaction force of two battalions of paratroopers, supported by an armoured brigade. Two further rapid response formations, known as “Strike Brigades” are also available on short notice. These are composed of lighter units than the heavy fist of an armoured brigade, designed for mobility and ease of transport. Merely one brigade should comprise a force more than sufficient to respond to any unilateral military action, looking at the border disputes and threats to the other 16 realms, possibly apart from Papua New Guinea. When viewing the larger Commonwealth, the major concern would be the India-Pakistan rift, but the UK would not be organising a single all inclusive Commonwealth defence treaty.
As the UK is an island, and many of its allies or potential allies are also islands, such a protection force would be useless without the ability to deploy them. For this reason the Royal Navy will be able to operate a pair of aircraft carriers, as well a sufficient if small fleet of escorts to ensure the ability to deploy a brigade Royal Marine Commando sized unit from the sea. It is very unlikely for any overseas territory, realm or commonwealth ally to be threatened by a force that a brigade would prove unable to counter in the unlikely event of a military confrontation.
In the last resort, the UK’s Trident nuclear defence system could also be easily used to form a nuclear umbrella. Such an organisation is by no means original in the world today; Australia and most of NATO are currently under a US Nuclear Umbrella. The closeness of ties is such already that each one of the V-Class SSBNs has a ‘Letter of Last Resort’, which outlines the final request of the Prime Minister if the UK has ceased to exist as a nation after a nuclear strike. In it, there are a number of options available to the Prime Minister, including placing the ‘boat’ under the command of one of three nations: The US, Canada and Australia. This would grant these nations a nuclear deterrent fleet by default. Also, if the de facto flagships of the Royal Navy were to be handed over to one of the key allies, it is very probable that the surviving parts of the UK’s armed forces and surviving overseas territories would also be “co-opted” into either the US, Canada or Australia. (New Zealand, being a nuclear-free-zone, would not wish to have the fleet under their command)
The question therefore is; if we can provide them with a nuclear deterrent when the UK no longer exists (and it is highly improbable that life in the UK would cease to exist following a nuclear strike), why wait until then? This is part of what the James Bennett proposed in his article “All the Queen’s Ships” here. Although he goes much further, suggesting a common military and federalism that would not seem out of place amongst the most ardent “Ever Closer Unionists” in the EU, the article remains a noteworthy reference for consideration. Chief among which was his proposal to include RAN and RCN officers and possibly even crew among the RN’s Trident armed SSBN (Ship, submersible, ballistic, nuclear) fleet. This would be a controversial move, but given the lack of crew in the Royal Navy and most arms of the UK’s armed forces, beginning with a pair of liaison officers from Canada & Australia would seem a natural beginning.
While this may seem to be an outrageous proposal to undermine the credibility and efficacy of the national nuclear deterrent, it is worth considering that Canada and Australia are two of five nations allowed to train with the Royal Navy’s infamous “Perisher” submarine command course. It can be therefore deducted that the Ministry of Defence should have no problems with a pair of liaison officers onboard its ballistic missile submarines, as it allows them to steer its nuclear attack submarines in close quarters operations (although the operations are restricted, reports suggest as little as 20ft clearance between ships above and less to the seabed). The picture above is of a UK-Dutch Perisher course in a Norwegian Fjord.
The military umbrella that the UK offers is of course not a goal in itself, but is hopefully purely a deterrent: the knowledge that the UK would defend its smaller allies should be sufficient to dissuade any aggression. This would hopefully be of considerable assistance to many smaller allies.
In conclusion, the UK has a lot to offer the world, and in Brexit, the UK can benefit. Post-Brexit the UK needs a new network of allies and trade partners. The UK is still a nation with a lot of advantages and it would be wise to realise these assets in the world of diplomacy. The UK’s low key alliances with many Commonwealth nations gives it a firm foundation to build off. This isn’t to say the EU is not to be key in the UK’s new post-Brexit foreign policy; it just won’t be alone on the top spot: The UK can expand its network of alliances and will benefit from doing so. The UK is open for business, and we are a nation worth doing business with – but like all firms, we need a good, effective and well-researched marketing strategy.
Pictures courtesy of: