Is grassroots foreign policy the answer for a post-Brexit UK?

The UK continues to face massive political upheaval brought about by the 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union. The British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG) was established later that same year in the belief that the referendum result was not only the cause, but a symptom of some far more profound changes playing themselves out in how the public engages with policy – with foreign and international policy a central and yet often overlooked aspect of that.

Like CPI, we see this as a real challenge for UK government legitimacy and have been on a listening project of our own since we were founded to better understand what key communities of influence want from all aspects of the UK’s foreign policy, whether trade, diplomacy, security or other issues. 

Three years later, we have developed a number of tentative conclusions about how the UK landscape is changing on international issues, and some of the trends that Brexit has revealed or accelerated.

The lack of a full picture

It’s clear from our work that cities, regions and devolved nations of the UK enjoy complex and varied links around the world that seem not to be systematically mapped at a national level, or routinely factored into national policy making. Examples range from Manchester’s growing links with cities in India and China, to Plymouth’s initiative with Dutch and US counterparts to celebrate 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower, and the emergence of south Wales as a global hub for the cyber-security industry

There are literally hundreds of other connections and initiatives going on around the UK at various levels with significant relevance for the UK’s place in the world, but which are not known about or appreciated centrally. This leads to a real challenge for policy coherence and impact for the UK.

And it’s getting worse…

Brexit has accelerated the ambitions of cities, regions and nations of the UK to build their own links and international initiatives distinct from the plans of central government. 

Both the vote itself and the subsequent policy malaise at UK level has led many significant actors across the UK to conclude they can and should no longer rely on Whitehall to represent and pursue their interests internationally. 

Not only that, but many of these cities and regions are competing with each other for the same trade and investment opportunities globally. The result is an increasing strain on the UK as regions and nations begin to push and pull in different directions.

But there is hope.

Whitehall itself has undergone considerable change since the Brexit vote, with a recognition that those parts dealing with international issues need to improve the way in which they understand and engage with the rest of the UK. Including through a partnership with the British Foreign Policy Group, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has initiated an event series to better understand and engage with audiences around the UK. 

Other departments such as DIT, DFID and MOD are considering similar initiatives, and these are increasingly coordinated by a government focus on ‘fusion’ bringing all departments together to deliver more effectively on national priorities. The challenge is keeping up with the accelerating complexity of the UK’s international links, whilst formulating and then implementing policy solutions that anticipate these changes instead of responding to challenges that have already moved on.

Soft power: towards a 21st century foreign policy for a 21st century UK

BFPG’s listening tour has revealed growing ambition, self confidence and urgency on the part of the UK’s nations, cities and regions to build their own international links. With a little more coordination and understanding from Whitehall, this could prove a great strength to a very different UK that is emerging into a very different international environment from even just a few years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, a major route to addressing the challenge is a far more engaged conversation about the UK’s soft power – the myriad cultural, business, sporting, education, civil society and other relationships the UK benefits from. The FCO is leading on the development of a government led soft power strategy for the UK, but as if not more important is a non-governmental conversation around the stories we tell to the world about our cities, regions, nations and the country as a whole. 

The British Foreign Policy Group has collaborated with the British Council and a number of other organisations to establish a UK Soft Power Group to pursue this. The challenge is less abstract and more practical than it may at first appear. A key theme in all our events has been the story that cities and regions project to the world about what makes them distinct and attractive as a place to do business in and with.

The challenge was perhaps most succinctly put by a speaker at our event in Coventry who said:

“As a city and region, [Coventry has] a huge amount we can contribute globally and a huge amount that we want from the world… However we struggle to articulate who we are and want to be in 2018, and until we can confidently tell a modern story about ourselves today, with all of its diversity and innovation, we will struggle to fulfil our global potential.” 

This seems a good summary of the challenge facing many parts of the UK, if not for the UK as a whole. Through our events, research and partnerships, the BFPG is seeking to catalyse some of the practical solutions to address this – and we know that sharing power across regions, levels of government, and with affected communities is absolutely essential to this

It is early days, but despite the scale of the challenge and the risks ahead, we can at least claim some real progress is being made to re-position the UK for a very different world, and a very different set of challenges that will impact us all, wherever we live.