To say that the UK has experienced a period of political uncertainty over the last year would be an understatement. The swift change in leadership after the Brexit vote was meant to provide some measure of stability, yet one year on, the situation seems if anything more fraught. An inconclusive general election, coinciding with a number of tragic events across the country has piled pressure on the government at a critical juncture in the process of de-coupling from the EU. The rise of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, backed by the strongest youth turnout in years, and a growing public weariness with austerity and public-sector cutbacks indicates that further changes could be on the horizon. The shadow of Brexit also looms large over Britain’s foreign policy. As the slightly muted negotiations begin in Brussels, diplomats are working around the clock further afield to build the relationships required to secure the trade deals the country will need in a post-EU reality. Geopolitically, Britain now finds itself slightly left out of the rebalancing we see playing out around the world. As the US charts its own ‘America First’ course, a resurgent EU works to forge its own destiny, and China presses on with its transformative ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the UK’s ability to retain its influence and relevance will be severely tested. Britain has remained at the top-table of international relations thanks to its unparalleled ability to effectively leverage its ‘smart power’ and its unique position as the Atlantic bridge between North America and Europe.
The UK’s objective soft power assets are the foundation of its continued success. Once again across the Engagement, Culture, Education and Digital sub-indices, Britain ranks highly. State institutions such as the British Council and BBC World Service, combined with internationally recognized brands like the Premier League provide the global reach and influence to reach and engage global audiences. The much vaunted creative, service, financial and technology sectors are fed by some of the world’s most successful higher learning institutions that attract the world’s best and brightest. All of this is underpinned by an established and professional civil service. From Whitehall, the government is able to extend Britain’s influence around the world while providing a domestic model for other governments to emulate.
The inherent instability caused by the decision to leave the EU has thrown much of the strengths listed above into question. This is clearly apparent in the Government sub-index score, where the absolute score has fallen by 5 points due to decreasing government stability. The UK has also suffered in the global polling category. This is particularly noticeable in the data from EU countries, suggesting that achieving an ‘amicable divorce’ will be trickier than initially touted. Finally, the Enterprise score has also decreased, with low levels of R&D spending remaining an issue as Britain looks to compete on the global stage for investment.
While striking out alone during one of the most politically unstable periods in decades carries numerous risks, the UK has the resources, global connections and infrastructure to make a success of it. To do so will require a positive and inclusive narrative to take to the rest of the world and the right structural policies to keep Britain attractive for foreign investors, tourists and students. The world-leading GREAT campaign has served the UK well in promoting the best of the country to external audiences. Continued investment in the institutions and vehicles that export British soft power will only become more vital as the Brexit process continues.