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19 June 2024

The UK can make a difference on the world stage in these threatening times

Many want the Britain of their imagination to return: reliable, decent, committed to a rules-based order.

By Philippe Sands

In a changing world, the next government faces tough issues on Britain’s place in it. It is time to be brutally straight with ourselves: the country has fallen off the top table, its engagement with the past is at times delusional, and Brexit has left the country adrift and dangerously isolated in a world where allies are important. 

I see this daily in my own work in international law, on economic and environmental matters, on issues from security to human rights. In cases before the International Court of Justice, my main stomping ground, it is dismal to see how lonely and defensive Britain sometimes seems, adopting positions and tones that so often fail to resonate with judges, as well as with global policymakers. On diverse issues such as Palestine, climate change, colonial legacies and the right to strike, for example, Britain’s arguments make little impact and are seen as being driven by short-term self-interest and fears about past actions coming home to roost, in particular during the colonial era.

What is to be done?

First, there must be honesty about the past. Celebrate the successes and the positives, and there are many, but recognise that where the country has fallen short – on aspects of colonial rule, on enslavement – realism is needed. It is the only way to develop effective relationships with those whose forebears were on the receiving end of British avarice.

Second, there must be realism about the present. Britain’s economic heft is diminished, its military writ limited. A way needs to be found – and fast – to restore decent trading relations with Europe, and develop a security posture that is plausible and effective. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific is seen as over-reach and a joke in the region, as a former Australian prime minister recently told me. There is no alternative to a reintegration into European security and foreign affairs policy. Given Russia’s posture in Ukraine and beyond, this is urgent.

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Third, there must be honesty about the future. Britain can have a decent role to play, but it will be in a changed, multipolar world in which partnerships with the Global South will become increasingly significant. In this respect, a Commonwealth of equal partners offers the best opportunity to build on real mutual respect and historic ties, particularly if it can harness the vital energy of young people, who will define the world in which they wish to live.

Fourth, play to Britain’s strengths, which include principles of reliability, decency and a genuine commitment to the rule of law. “My word is my bond” has been trashed by post-Brexit hubris, as agreements entered into are quickly reneged on. After 1945, Britain contributed to a new rules-based order, yet it now routinely undermines its own creation. Stop the critique of the European Convention on Human Rights, international judges and international courts. Britain should engage its obvious diplomatic skills, and give its world-class diplomats and their lawyers a set of policies that allow them to try to remake the UN and other international institutional architecture. 

Fifth, invest in language, in British arts, and in ideas and free sion around the globe. Celebrate the diversity of our song, prose and poetry; treble the budget of the BBC World Service and British Council; put our museums on a sound financial footing; support our orchestras and musicians and writers as they explore the world; rejoin the Erasmus education programme; and integrate ourselves utterly into the Horizon Europe science programme.

As a lawyer and a writer, I am currently engaged with dozens of countries around the world. Plying my trade, the question I am constantly asked is: what happened to Britain? The Iraq moment did great harm, exacerbated by current government stances that engender feelings of incredulity, disappointment and anger. Yet my experience is that many people want the Britain of their imaginations – reliable, decent, ironic, committed to a rules-based order – to return.

Warts and all, with the right policies, tone and partners, Britain can make a difference in these threatening times. To do so needs less hubris, less entitlement, more honesty, and a great deal more of the modest things Britain is able to so well.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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