The cruellest paradox arising from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is that its formal independence from the voluntary group of democracies will leave it more dependent on other, more capricious international actors. Despite the political effectiveness of the cries to “take back control” from the distant Eurocrats, Britain’s scope to act on the world stage will be drastically reduced by the inevitable political and economic realignments. Economically, the need to strike new trade deals with other large economies will require the British government to make unpalatable concessions, with the privatisation of healthcare and the chlorinated chicken just two of the unpopular consequences of a mooted free trade agreement with the Trump administration. However, the starkest examples of the UK’s reduced power in the world will be on issues of morality, legality and international norms.
The UK has never been an unsullied moral beacon in the world, with the colonial legacy still largely reckoned with. Britain has also been the world’s third biggest arms exporter in the post-WW2, showing the same studied amorality towards wars in the Global South as other arms-dealing democracies like France and the US. Still, the UK has at times provided moral leadership on issues such as human rights, democracy and foreign aid. This is a position on the world stage which sits uneasily alongside alliances of convivence with the likes of Saudi Arabia. This disconnect between Britain’s sporadic commitment to doing good and its amoral foreign policy can be exemplified in its approach to war-torn Yemen, where it is the second largest foreign aid donor even as it sells Saudi Arabia the means to conduct its brutal campaign.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia make up a huge proportion of the British arms industries total exports, with the early 90’s seeing up to 75% of such exports going to the Gulf Kingdom. In the first half of 2017 sales figures topped £1.1 billion, with figures unlikely to drop soon. Leaving the EU without a solid free trade deal, an outcome which looks increasingly likely, will leave the UK further reliant on trade with rich but dangerous partners like Saudi Arabia. Indeed, this was part of the raison de’etre behind Brexit for many within the Tory party, who touted the ability of a new freewheeling, global Britain to make new trade deals outside the confines of the EU. While fever dreams about a new British East India Company were hardly forefront in the minds of many economically-anxious and immigration-focused Brexit voters, they have a powerful influence on the wealthy donors and high Tory ideologues now driving Brexit.
A sad fact underpinning this perfidious approach to trade is that the importance of Saudi arms sales, and indeed arms sales in general, to the UK economy is often vastly overstated. A recent report suggests that while the money brought in from arms sales is significant, it represents only 0.0004% of Treasury receipts. Britain has other countries it could sell arms to, and more fundamentally has other industries that engineers could work in. The charge that limiting such sales would risk jobs is naïve, or more likely a calculated lie. The highly skilled scientists and engineers working in the British arms industries are unlikely to find themselves at the benefits office, and companies like BAE systems would surely survive any fit of morality from the British government. However, the current conservative government is too desperate to maintain Saudi inward investment to risk upsetting the balance over arms sales. With the post-Brexit trade environment looking grim they need all the good news they can get, with recent investments coming of the back of Mohammed bin-Salman’s state visit being a shaft of light in an otherwise dark tunnel.
The recent disappearance and probable murder of Jamal Khashoggi provides an even starker example of Britain’s reduced voice and power. While the growing international outcry over Saudi Arabia’s treatment of foreign dissidents is increasingly isolating the kingdom, Britain has been slow and hesitant in its response. Indeed, the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has looked timid compared to even Donald Trump, hardly a leader known for letting moral qualms get in the way of a lucrative deal. This again points to an unwillingness to jeopardize a relationship which the British government increasingly sees, rightly or wrongly, as vital to the post-Brexit economic outlook. The question is whether this is a temporary situation, born out of confusion and uncertainty, or a permanent feature of a much reduced Britain.
Beyond the UK’s economic precarity, a deeper issue underlies this studied amorality. The EU, for all its faults on issues of foreign policy, is able to speak with one voice on many matters. The countries within it share, with some growing exceptions, a commitment to liberal democracy and human rights. The reality of trade deals outside this common economic and cultural zone will require hard choices beyond just Saudi Arabia and arms, with access to China’s growing market surely a necessity for Britain. The EU collectively remains the world’s biggest economy, giving it the ability to negotiate with some level of parity with the US and China. The reality of Global Britain is that it will no longer be able to speak with that shared voice. While Britain may have gained its formal independence from the EU, it now runs the risk of losing what remains of its moral compass as it scrambles to make friends wherever it can find them.
Header Image: A Banksy mural in Dover
Daniel Odin Shaw is a Scotland-based scholar working on post-conflict peacebuilding dynamics. He also focuses on political violence, non-state actors, security governance, gender and territorial politics.