Dr. Rebecca Harding
CEO, Coriolis Technologies
The Brexit referendum was a watershed moment for global trade.
The vote to leave was based on a populist sentiment that came from a now well-documented sense of exclusion from the benefits of globalisation. This same populism catalysed the rise of economic nationalism in the US, the election of President Trump and the subsequent weaponisation of trade. Trade wars, and the weakening of global trade institutions like the World Trade Organization are the result. Tariffs and sanctions are now mainstream tools of an economic and financial conflict between the super-powers with digitalisation and control of data at its core.
In this paradigmatic power struggle, economic means are a powerful a way of coercing and influencing states to toe the line. Trade is the perfect tool and trade wars the perfect proxy for the bigger conflict. It has become the tool of the “all means” approach to foreign policy as the battle for technological supremacy starts to unravel many of the systems the world has taken for granted over the past 70 years since the end of the second world war.
This is the foreign policy reality that post-Brexit Britain faces. If the country is to survive within this substantially more complex trade environment, then it has to see trade as part of its national security strategy, as do the Chinese implicitly and the Americans explicitly. The last full National Security Strategy was published in 2015 and although there have been revisions and defence capability reviews since, the fundamental premise of these has not changed: at the highest level, our economic security was protected through our membership of the European Union; our military security through our membership of NATO.
For any strategy to work, it has to have a future vision of the country and a realistic view of what it is now as well as a means to achieving it. The US National Security Strategy is crystal clear on its Make America Great Again agenda that appeals directly to the populist sentiment that brought President Trump to power.
The vision of the UK post Brexit has never been fully articulated. Therefore, such a strategic approach will be hard for the government to achieve. Our indicative survey of 1007 individuals representative of the UK population by age, gender, income and employment is the Coriolis Technologies contribution to this debate.
We will be publishing a full report later in February, but for now, what was fascinating was that the British public sees the UK as a country with substantial or average power, but not dominance in the world. This pragmatic view was supported by the fact that, apart from external threats to the UK, the respondents generally felt less secure in terms of terrorist threats, cyber threats, political stability,
environmental sustainability and protection of data than they did 10 years ago. Just 19% said they felt more secure in terms of their jobs, 26% in terms of their household finances and 24% in terms of the performance of the UK economy. 86% of the population’s attitude towards the UK’s position in the world had either stayed the same (49%) or worsened (38%).
Nearly 70% said that a fully-funded NHS would make them feel more secure, while 47% said trade deals with non-EU countries would make them feel more prosperous and 41% said a swift trade deal with Europe would do the same.
Around 53% of the respondents cited economic security as a major concern, 54% the threat of terror and 49% environmental destruction but interestingly, it was the UK’s character as a soft power that respondents felt was the most important thing to build into a vision of the future. 77% ranked economic strength as important or very important. 69% ranked fairness, transparency and honesty about the challenges the country faces in their top three priorities for strategy, 57% leading the charge on climate change and 53% building on our world class intelligence services.
On balance, the results suggest that trade and economics are more important than our military prowess; our security services are a core strength of the UK; and the NHS remains the primary public priority in terms of personal security ranked above cyber security or terrorism and military threats from abroad.
Our survey provides a preliminary vision for the UK that comes from the people themselves. Even if the sample is small, it tells us that independence, freedom and fairness are important politically and economically. This is a far cry from the coercive and belligerent tone that underpinned the negotiating process with the EU for much of the past three years. Politicians will need to build on the palpable sense from the results that access to economic strength, diplomacy, and health and education are more important than military prowess.
Above all, the respondents wanted politicians to be realistic and honest about the challenges ahead. We live in complex technological and geopolitical times and only 36% of the respondents said they trusted politicians to deliver their vision of the future security of the country. 31% said they trusted no-one.
This is the real core of the issue and indicates that the underlying sense of popular disaffection has not gone away. While the majority of individuals see national security strategy as a means of securing protection against external military threats or terrorism, their personal security is defined in economic and social terms. Trade has become a part of the politics of national security – as a weapon to fight a bigger war; it was strategic, but in an economic rather than a military sense. Our results suggest that this is precisely where the public would like it to return to – as a means of achieving economic security rather than power and influence. Politicians ignore that message at their peril.