It was almost exactly two years ago that I went into the Durbar Court in Britain’s Foreign Office. It was my first day as foreign secretary, and I stood within that vast marble atrium adorned with the busts of explorers, and I announced a vision.
It wasn’t a policy. It wasn’t much more than a slogan. It was the way we needed to think of ourselves in the wake of the referendum. It was time, I told the crowd — some of them hanging over the galleries like a scene from The Shawshank Redemption — for Global Britain. And by Global Britain, I meant a country that was more open, more outward-looking, more engaged with the world than ever before.
It meant taking the referendum and using it as an opportunity to rediscover some of the dynamism of these bearded Victorians; not to build a new empire, heaven forfend, but to use every ounce of Britain’s power, hard and soft, to go back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten over the past 45 years: to find friends, to open markets, to promote our culture and our values.
It did not mean that we would have to turn our backs on our friends and partners across the Channel; of course not. With the right free trade deal, we would be able to do more business with the EU than ever. Global Britain meant doing something extra. It meant rekindling old friendships in the Commonwealth, 52 of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Global Britain was about intensifying links with the United States, already our biggest single export market. If we were to be truly global, we should do more with the Gulf countries, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with China. At a time when free trade was under threat, we should be champions and catalysts for open markets, and militate ceaselessly for free trade deals.
This was a great moment for the Foreign Office, I told them, a chance for the Union Flag to go up again around the world. And two years later, as I step down, I will resist — for now — the temptation to bang on about Brexit; but I am immensely proud of the Global Britain project, and what this corps of diplomats has achieved.
I still read the odd squib from someone who says that he or she doesn’t “get” Global Britain. Some seem to think that the concept is vainglorious; that we are not capable of acting in a global way. You hear people use phrases like “second-rate power”. Some say it is pretentious to think global, and that we should axe our aid spending. There are some — Jeremy Corbyn, for instance — who have argued for the end of British Armed Forces and the abolition of our nuclear deterrent and therefore the end of our membership of the UN Security Council. They are all wrong, and I have seen how championing Global Britain is in the financial interests of every family in this country.
British embassies are the vital beach-heads for the promotion of British trade, culture, and interests. If you go to them you will see the pulling power of the UK — crowds buzzing with local cabinet ministers and all the bigwigs. And dotted throughout the party are the representatives of the wider family of Global Britain. There are the British multinational businesses, wolfing the canapes that they help to fund with their taxes; here is someone from the British Council, here a tech start-up genius, here a banker, a consultant, a poet, an oceanographer.
It is with the help of these Foreign Office missions that the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of services, and the biggest overseas investor in Europe. Connected with the embassy in greater or lesser degree is the wider British expat community — about six million people around the world, perhaps the biggest per capita diaspora of any OECD country.
And don’t tell me that the UK is losing diplomatic influence. The reverse is true. Just in the past few weeks we saw the UK help to concert the biggest ever expulsion of Russian spies, as 28 countries showed their repulsion at the use of Novichok in Salisbury. All told, 153 Russian spooks were sent packing. In diplomatic terms, the FCO hit it out of the park.
Two weeks ago the UN Human Rights council gave the biggest ever vote of support for the UK’s campaign for 12 years of quality education for every girl, with more than 150 votes. The FCO comprehensively outgeneralled its opponents at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, extending the mandate of the organisation so as to enable them to identify those who have used a chemical weapon. We have hosted a highly successful Commonwealth summit; Zimbabwe is on the way back into a revived institution. Angola has said it wants to join. We are opening new embassies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, nine all told, with 15 more to follow in Africa. Across the world, the flag is going up, not down.
But if you want to find the people who really believe in Global Britain, don’t just talk to the FCO. Talk to our friends around the world. In the Middle East, in Africa, in the Far East, I meet governments who want nothing so much as to cooperate with our intelligence services — acknowledged to be the best in the world. I have seen with my own eyes how we are giving military assistance from Ukraine to Nigeria. The world wants more UK investment and more UK goods. Exports have recently been running at about 30 per cent of GDP, and Liam Fox and his team really are helping to sell boomerangs to Australia.
Above all, the elites of the world pay this country the highest compliment of all in that they want to come here, to shop here, to send their kids to this country’s universities. I find that they are amazed at the media nonsense and the lack of self-confidence, in the current debate on the EU, about whether we can do things for ourselves. They see a first rate military power, one of the few capable of projecting force 8,000 miles. They see by far the most innovative economy in Europe; the tech capital of the hemisphere; the greatest financial centre; a place where one Oxbridge college boasts more Nobel prizes than France; that exports six times more television shows than any other European country and produces most of the world’s top-selling musical artists. They see a country whose royal weddings transfix the globe; a country with 0.7 per cent of the world population whose sportsmen and women in the past five years have come second in the Olympics, won Wimbledon, and whose unfancied side has just come fourth in the football World Cup under the leadership of a man whose very waistcoat incarnates — in the eyes of our friends — the charm and eccentricity of the UK. This is the soft power superpower.
That is why it is time for all of us — at this critical moment in our constitutional development — to believe in ourselves, to believe in the British people and what they can do, and in our democracy. People around the world believe passionately in Britain. It’s time we shared their confidence.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Boris Johnson is former foreign secretary of Britain.