Conservatives and Brexit – what can we expect on the world stage?

One more sleep to go.  Tomorrow we find out the immediate fate of the nation.  It’s been a long election campaign.  For five weeks we’ve been fed an endless diet of Brexit and the NHS in the news.  Much has been said and argued about taxation, public services, infrastructure, the police, and housing.  Yet all parties have been very quiet on their proposed foreign policies.  This isn’t only down to them – broadcasters and interviewers have also devoted little time to this subject.  Trade, a key part of International diplomacy and strategy, has been discussed to some extent, but little has been said with regard to our approach to the world beyond economic confines, including many issues that could have great effects on our ability to trade.  And if it is to be Brexit (which pre-supposes a Conservative majority), surely the question of Britain’s position in the world will hardly ever have been more salient?

Curious for some idea of what we can expect should the Conservatives win tomorrow, I’ve been looking into the foreign policy and defence sections of their manifesto.  Should we get a hung Parliament, on the other hand, we will have to turn our attention more closely to Labour’s plans – in which case, more on this to follow…

Conservatives

True to the pattern of their short manifesto, the Tories’ sections on foreign policy and defence are brief and high-level.  On the whole, it has to be said that there is very little in the way of new policy in here and a lot in the way of “maintaining” the as-is approach. They are big on “commitment” to broad and vague goals, light on exactly how (or even if) they intend to increase Britain’s clout, prestige, and voice on the global stage.  

Defence

On defence, they are largely solid (within the pre-existing parameters) without being bold.  Commitments to continuing to exceed 2% worth of GDP on defence spending (to be increased by at least 0.5% above inflation every year) and to maintain Trident are welcome, particularly in light of the dangerous drive for cuts under Cameron/Osborne and May/Hammond.  That said, such commitments should be a fundamental expectation of any government.  

Also promising are pledges to modernise Armed Forces’ and intelligence agencies’ equipment, to adapt to new threats, such as cybersecurity and the race to space warfare, and investment in “ambitious global programmes”, such as the building of new frigates.  However, it has to be asked where the funding will come from for this, and, more crucially, when it will come.  In light of the aforementioned manifesto commitment to simply maintain spending above the minimum NATO target, these pledges sound vague.  It is quite possible that they are deliberately so in order to give the Conservatives the wriggle-room to kick these commitments down the road.  Day-in, day-out, it becomes increasingly clear that this country is under threat from increasingly confident malign forces, whether from, for instance, constant cyber attacks and espionage activity by Russia and China, terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, or the seizure of British-flagged vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.  Funding in defence is needed urgently, both to actually defend our interests and to send a signal to such hostile powers that there will be consequences to attacks on this country.  It is unclear, from the Conservatives’ manifesto, that this funding will be imminently forthcoming.

There is also a commitment to “bolster the alliances and institutions that help project our influence and keep us safe”, including the UN and UN Security Council, NATO, and FIve Eyes (also listed are economic bodies and institutions).  This is a sensible, pragmatic commitment, though the fact remains that our commitment to and influence in such bodies would be increased by a more robust defence programme, starting by providing the funding to fully deal with threats and meet our obligations.

Foreign Policy

Trade features largely in the Conservatives’ offering on international affairs.  Although taking up only one page, the commitments made on this subject are highly ambitious and truly global, which is to the party’s great credit – if we are to make a success of Brexit, it is clear, whichever way you voted in the referendum, that we must strike out into the world boldly, confidently and with openness, rather than timidly, indecisively and with insularity.

The party claims to be aiming to have 80% of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years, negotiating treaties with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan concurrently with negotiations with the EU.  It pledges to aim for trade deals with developing countries also, arguing that by pursuing such deals and offering such countries access to the UK’s markets and expertise, the UK can help to transform these countries.  It also argues that Britain can bring values and ethics into such deals, for instance by including agreement on workers’ treatment and women’s empowerment in any treaties made.  It also pledges to make use of the historical and cultural connections already shared with the Commonwealth to forge stronger links with its countries.  Finally, it sets itself the ambition of opening up trade in services as part of the trade deals it strikes.

The biggest question on this trade policy is the deliverability of it.  Much has already been made of our ability (or rather suggested inability) to negotiate a trade deal with the EU within one year, with many pointing out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement took about a decade to negotiate.  And in all likelihood, a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU will likely take longer than one year to agree.  Yet what many neglect to mention about the TPP is that it is a multilateral trade agreement.  It is for the same reason that the EU deal would take so long to negotiate – any agreement would have to be acceptable to all members of the EU, not just the central leadership.  The UK will be most likely be negotiating bilateral trade deals with all other parties mentioned in the manifesto.  And according to research in 2012 by ETH Zurich academic Christoph Moser and Berkeley academic Andrew K Rose, such trade deals take on average 28 months to complete.  The Peterson Institute for International Economics further reduces this, calculating that it takes the US one and a half years on average to agree trade deals.  On this basis, the ambition being set for itself by the Conservative party, should it gain power on 12 December, seems achievable in most cases, the EU being the exception because of its nature.

The manifesto also includes a section on promoting British values globally.  Much of this is made up of promises to continue the multilateral activity already underway on the global scene.  Support for sanctions regimes against human rights abusers, for global female education, for international media freedom, and for marginalised communities is stated in the manifesto, as a continuation of current policy.  The eye-catching policies, in that they seem likely to lead to imminent results or in that they leave questions remaining, are: a commitment to end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030; support for the planned UK Holocaust Memorial, and; the maintenance of the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international development.  The commitment to end the preventable deaths of the vulnerable in childbirth or infancy would be truly momentous on a human level, not to say long overdue too, and to do so by 2030 is an ambitious but highly worthwhile target.  The explicit support for the Holocaust Memorial is a worthy message of (the widespread) British solidarity with the Jewish community at a time when they are, incredibly once more, being targeted by public figures.  On the other hand, the commitment to maintaining the international development spending raises a key question – will this continue to be spent along current guidelines, or will there be, as has been suggested a number of times of the last few years, a review of policy to align this spending with British diplomatic and value-led aims?

Finally, there is a pledge to “work with our cultural institutions like the BBC and British Council to expand our influence and project our values”.  In a period where nationally-funded television is being (not without reason) criticised for its bias, it is reassuring that the Conservatives seem to recognise the immense enhancement to our soft power that the BBC provides.  It provides a British coverage of world news to a global audience, and rightly has a reputation for fairness and comprehensiveness compared to the output of other nations, including often the news services in its listeners’ own countries.  The BBC was the voice of the free world during the Nazi occupation in Europe and it maintains that aura of truth and hope.  To scrap it or even take away state funding from its news service would be to remove a considerable source of British global influence.

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