A better way for Britain

Global Britain loses out on the possible benefits of Brexit: the creation of a cooperative, triangulated, Regional Britain

Artillery Row

The Government is moving mountains, or at least PR specialists, to identify tangible benefits from Brexit. All they have come up with so far is bling. From trade deals with Asia-Pacific countries that won’t increase trade, to free ports that won’t create wealth, we are presented with “benefits” that are anything but. Indeed the government seems determined to try and bury the dirty reality of the economic and strategic impact of Brexit in its amorphous, grandiose Global Britain project, using substanceless, optimistic slogans to make the British people feel powerful as Brexit leads to a faster relative decline on the world stage.

The country is missing out on the possible benefits of Brexit

The great problem with the Global Britain idea is that its entire purpose, to urge the nation to involve itself around the world, will mean that the country misses out on the possible benefits of Brexit: the creation of a cooperative, triangulated, Regional Britain. Brexit could possibly have benefits for the UK if it were used to re-conceive what the state is. Let this be a cleansing movement away from the post-1945 conception of a great, global power in decline, instead reimagining British involvement to reflect what it actually is today: a medium sized, limited, regional power, with a few areas of real strength which has little or no benefit to itself and others in trying to play a global role.

To start, let’s put where Britain is today in historic context. Populists like to talk about Britain’s global ranking as if rank is what matters. It’s not a question of rank; it’s a question of percentage of world output that determines your influence in the world. In purchasing power, the UK GDP in 2020 was 2.25 per cent of world output, and five years from now it will be just above 2 per cent.

What would this represent in the era of the world wars? Somewhere between Italy and Spain. UK in output terms today is smaller than Mussolini’s Italy of the Second World War but a little larger than Franco’s Spain. In First World War terms, it would make the UK almost as economically large as Italy in 1913. The idea of either a Global Spain or a Global Italy is about as realistic as a Global Britain today.

Cyber is the ace in the hole for Regional Britain

Yet, Britain has a much better shot than either Spain or Italy at being a successful regional power because it has key strategic expertise that its region (Europe) needs. It also has no rival who can easily replace these — if the UK acts quickly. The key starting point for Regional Britain is to leverage its security expertise in a few focussed ways that would have enormous appeal to the rest of Europe, outside of Russia and Belarus. The areas which really matter are Britain’s growing cyber strength (one of the few areas of very important and prescient government investment over the last decade), its maritime patrol abilities in Europe and North Atlantic waters, and a reasonably sized deployable land force that could reassure Eastern European states in particular.

What do all of these have in common? They reveal that Britain’s greatest purpose as a regional power is to be a European leader in containing or confronting Russian efforts at destabilizing the region, especially with the US focussing more and more on Asia-Pacific. Indeed the reduction of US focus on Europe, which is also occurring because of the growth of American populism, presents the most important challenge but also opportunity for Regional Britain. With the US’s attention elsewhere, Britain becomes the leading European power in all of these areas, and its expertise would be vital to creating any European based cooperative action.

Take cyber, where Britain moved earlier and more effectively than other European states to prioritize and develop a cyber capability. Cyber tools, particularly information conflict, are and will be Russia’s greatest means of throwing its weight around against the rest of Europe. This can involve everything from Russia destabilizing politics across the continent, and the spreading anti-vax messages, to the protecting of organizations running cyber blackmail or espionage activities. The latter two, which involve attacks such as ransomware, can have huge economic costs.

Because of both excellent early investment, and the power of Britain’s IT and University sections, the UK is Europe’s leading cyber power at a time when this capability is, and will be, desperately needed. The UK should offer to share some of its expertise while leading a European cyber response — saving different European states huge sums in keeping them from developing redundant capabilities and losses due to ransomware or stolen trade secrets. Cyber is the ace in the hole for Regional Britain.

Citizens of smaller European states are generally more happy

Other areas also play to UK strengths. When it comes to maritime patrol, Britain remains what it has been for centuries, the leading European naval power. Its ASW capabilities continue to be among the best in the world. As Russian submarines would be the greatest challenge faced, this ability is seen as very important to partners such as Scandinavia and Northern Europe in particular. Finally, the UK has the ability to deploy brigade sized land forces, which are not large enough themselves to make a massive difference in, say, a war against Russia. However, as the present crisis with Belarus shows, a rapidly deployable, professional force is of great value in moments of high tension.

Regional Britain can make itself a valued and important partner for European countries’ security — but that would require a rethink from some of its present defence structure. Global Britain’s showpieces, the two wildly expensive Queen Elizabeth Aircraft carriers with their component of F35-Cs, are so pricey that the country is having to slash the number that they can provide. These forces, which are now supporting the UK’s performative role in the South China Sea and Pacific, would have only limited utility in confronting Russian aggression within a European context. Simply protecting the carriers would make them a negative. Far better for Regional Britain to move away from such hyper expensive, big ticket items. The same might be said about Trident.

The real value of Regional Britain playing a helpful security role for its European partners is that it would disincentivize many to act like Brexit Britain has done so far, treating issues of trade and economic interaction as a zero-sum game. If this continues, it will only damage the UK more as it is progressively restricted from regional economic supply chains and services. Regional Britain, however, would make it in Europe’s interest to keep the UK healthy.

The success of the UK’s high tech sector has been probably the greatest positive development for the country over the last 20 years. It has made the UK the largest inward recipient of high tech investment capital in Europe, allowing the UK to become Europe’s cyber leader. The recently released Integrated Security and Defence Review is an uneven document, but when it comes to cyber and the importance of Britain becoming a high-tech power, it is spot on.

Only a Regional Britain, cooperative with Europe, disabusing itself of unneeded and destructive global dreams, can achieve this status. From what we can tell, this would benefit the British people as well. Not only are citizens of smaller/medium size European states more happy in general, but a regionally focussed, cooperative Britain could help heal some of the deep divisions that Brexit has brought to the body politic. This is all possible under Brexit, if UK policymakers are interested in doing what’s best for the country.

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