Tara McCormack argues that the UK’s foreign policy remains a bastion of anti-democratic elite politics.
Brexit was premised on the idea of sovereignty. Sovereignty is not a mystical property inherent in any political entity, but rather is something that is brought into reality by political practice and the nature of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It does not denote total control but means that a political community, however constituted, can make legitimate and meaningful choices about significant policies. Years of hollowing out of the state as the British (and other European) political classes retreated from their own citizens and into the comforting camaraderie of EU member-statehood, led to an incapable political class, hampered by the growing gap between the government and the governed. The Leave campaign’s slogan ‘Take back control’ encapsulated this problem, as well as proposing that citizens can and should have a fundamental role in deciding policy.
Foreign policy can entail existential decisions, not just to send soldiers to kill and be killed as with our many post Cold War covert wars, but choices that can lead to states going directly to war with each other. Today, Britain is currently deeply engaged in a proxy war with the biggest nuclear power in the world without any democratic debate and discussion.
Rather than opening up areas of policy to democratic scrutiny, the Brexit vote seems to have pushed the government in the opposite direction, a determination to avoid democratic scrutiny as much as possible. This was rapidly demonstrated by the eager embrace of emergency rule and of a very limited set of advisers who claimed to represent ‘The Science’ that brooked No Alternative to irrational lockdowns (with all the inevitable misery that has flowed from shutting down society for two years). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the first post-Covid foreign policy event and it has been eagerly seized upon by the British political class in similar style.
What we have seen with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the British response is a foreign policy hyper-activism presented to the people in Covid mode: There Is No Alternative. Britain has poured billions of pounds worth of weaponry and money into Ukraine – so much that the army is now fretting that the cupboards are nearly bare – with a total absence of any kind of media analysis or discussion in Parliament. Johnson has repeatedly told Ukrainian president Voldomyr Zelensky not to negotiate with Russia, at one point telling him that even if Ukraine was ready to negotiate, the Western powers were not (so much for that all that Ukrainian agency that supporters of arming Ukraine have been going on about).
Johnson has also done something even more astonishing. The British state has given some military security guarantees to Sweden and Finland before these countries have been formally accepted as members of the NATO alliance. It was announced the day before it happened, as Johnson jetted off to his safe place of international grandstanding with fellow members of the global political class, and then reported in the media the following day. This momentous decision has not even merited a discussion in the House of Commons and has sunk out of sight like a stone in a pond with barely a ripple. Brexit supporter Fraser Nelson wrote in the Spectator that it was great that Britain was now sheltering Sweden and Finland under its ‘nuclear umbrella’. Johnson has offered Britain’s nuclear deterrence to Sweden and Finland, and no one thinks this merits debate
It is quite something that Britain is engaged in a proxy war with the world’s biggest nuclear power and it doesn’t even require a discussion in the House of Commons or a single basic question from our forensic men and women of the media; a question about, for example , its possible consequences. The media has stuck impressively to its Covid role of creating a consensus (to borrow Leighton Woodhouse’s phrase). We’re all in it together! We’re all happy to pay much more for everything to support Ukraine! Take in a Ukrainian refugee! This is a war for our values! As with Covid, the end is always just a few weeks away. Two more weeks until Russia falters, just another billion worth of weaponry, just another tranche of sanctions. If Putin’s strategy has failed, as we are incessantly told by our media, what about our strategy? Two weeks to flatten the invasion, six months on. As with Covid policy choices, to ask the most basic questions about means, ends, costs, benefits with respect to Ukraine is verboten and will draw a barrage of smears – though this time, rather than being a granny-killer, the culprit will be Putin’s stooge repeating Kremlin talking points.
The British political class has increasingly come under fire for the consequences of two years of disastrous Covid policy choices – namely, a crashing health system, a spiralling cost of living crisis, deleterious effects on children, to name but a few. As Covid was running out of steam, the Ukraine crisis has offered a wonderful set of photo opportunities and ostensibly consequence-free grand statements about values, ‘the West’ and the British political class’s perennial favourite, the Churchill tribute act. Of course, on one level it’s easy to understand why Johnson preferred to ditch his Doncaster meeting with Conservative MPs and fly to Kiev for a celebrity photo shoot with Zelensky. Who among us would not prefer to be jetting off to be feted in a place in which a street has been named after us, instead of sitting in a stuffy room with a bunch of moaning parliamentarians complaining about how angry their constituents are?
For much of the previous two centuries foreign policy has been justified in the name of the ‘the national interest’, a term that implies a core of irreducible interests and values that is above the hurly burly of domestic political contestation, although in reality was established through that contest. The national interest has been defined by the ruling elites of the day in terms of their class interests. Brexit offered a head-on challenge to the ruling elite, one that raised the spectre of democratic control of policy. It could, therefore, be an opportunity to think about our foreign policy and what our interests as citizens might be when it comes to foreign policy.
However, we have a political class that is doing its utmost to kill off any democratic potential within the Brexit vote. If Covid policies represented the politics of restoration, policy towards Ukraine is a glorious revolution in which any hint of the democratic politics is put firmly back into its box. Policies ostensibly dictated by events far beyond our control is the rule from now on. The current batch of contenders to replace out-going prime minister Boris Johnson does not bode well on this front. Liz Truss will no doubt double down on escalating the war as part of her poundshop Thatcher routine. Penny Mordaunt boasted that several Ukrainian MPs backed her to be PM. Sunak has pledged that his first foreign visit will be to Kiev if he becomes Prime Minister. All of this shows that our leaders just cannot get away from the voters quick enough. We need to force a discussion about foreign policy in the public arena and ask what our interests might be. Without democratic control of foreign policy, we cannot claim the popular sovereignty that Brexit promised.