David Howell (Lord Howell of Guildford) reflects on options for Britain in this article exclusively for European Crossroads, in a sequel to the publication of his new book, Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in the Age of Networks (London: I B Tauris).
Most people now accept that we are now moving into a world of networks and supply chains of infinite complexity. Less understood, so far, is the enormous impact this is having on the whole pattern of international relations . Each crisis that comes along, whether it is the turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring, long since soured, or the murderous war in Syria or now the ugly tensions in Ukraine , illuminates like a flash of lightening in the night sky an international landscape in total upheaval and change.
With most countries and peoples continuously connected, with an intensity never before experienced in history, with the electronic empowerment of groups and interests ,and the consequent fragmentation in the whole pattern of state power, with the rising influence and economic weight of the non-Western world (the so-called ‘rise of the rest’) the whole behaviour path of international affairs has started to shift. And for nations like Britain that want to survive and prosper in these new conditions it is time to shift, too.
Old Links and New Ties is an introductory manual on how the British nation should go about this task. A networked world, in which all countries, regions and societies are linked, large and small, responds quite differently to the old order of hierarchies and superpowers. Every upheaval anywhere vibrates through and rattles the whole global system. Every possible instrument and asset has to be used to protect and promote a nation’s interests, to safeguard its security and uphold its reputation. Every connection has to be nurtured to gain access to new markets, to trade, do business ,compete and survive economically.
In Britain we have a nation which, at least in theory, should be superbly placed to ‘work’ this new scene and to be a top-rank operator in the digital era. In particular it happens , by lucky inheritance, to be embedded in the vast system of Commonwealth connections which give it unrivalled access routes into the new world arena and this new milieu.
Here is a ready-made tapestry of common working language, common legal procedures, common standards in accounting, medicine, scientific research ,educational development, university design, cultural norms, and much more — stretching across all continents, a third of the human race, fifty-plus countries, large and small, and some of the world’s fastest growing , cutting edge economies . What used to be regarded as a withered association of the past, left over from the days of the British Empire, has been transformed and given a veritable blood transfusion of vitality by the information revolution and the internet age. Interest talks to interest, business to business, technical expert to expert, school to school, media outlet to media outlet, all in continuous and creative connection. Nothing like it has existed before and it ought to put Britain in pole position, as the digital nation par excellence , the hub of hubs.
But in practice it is not quite like that, despite the huge opportunities and yawning open goals for success something is holding Britain back. Old Links and New Ties puts the spotlight on some of the biggest barriers and roadblocks on the highway to British recovery.
First, Britain has to settle its relationship with its European neighbourhood and to do so in a thoroughly constructive, consensual and European way. Starting from the pathfinding speech by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, of January 23rd 2013, it is shown how for Britain active membership in a reformed European Union can be turned from an irritant and asset in securing its future role. Contrary to much media coverage and comment his speech was not about Britain’s exclusive relationship with the rest of the EU. It was about reforming the while EU to meet, and compete effectively, in utterly transformed world conditions , leaving the mindsets and priorities of the 20th century far behind and opening out the prospect of a truly modern and flexible Europe, fit for 21st century purpose.
But second, goes the argument, this is a moment for Britain — maybe even a kind of turning point — when the urgency of settling our affairs with Europe is only matched by the equal or even greater urgency to gain a stronger foothold in the vast and growing markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to work through and with the Commonwealth network to do so.
Revisiting the Commonwealth
Why have the obvious advantages for Britain of this amazing lattice-work of connections and common attitudes ,the obvious entry point to the growth markets of tomorrow, been so disdainfully neglected by Britain over the last four decades. The answer is that back in 1972 Britain and its policy-making establishment made a fateful decision. They decided that the country’s future lay in Europe. That is where, its leaders at that time insisted, the growth was going to be. Backs could be safely turned on the Commonwealth, which seemed little more than a thankless burden and a begging bowl.
Now, forty years later, the wheel has turned by one hundred and eighty degrees. What may have been right then looks hopelessly dated now. While Europe struggles and partly stagnates the great growth markets lie elsewhere. It is the Commonwealth which contains some of the fastest growing economies and provides the gateway to even bigger ones such as China.
So Britain needs to reset both its policy tone and its policy priorities.
Third, argues the book, this ‘reset’ needs to apply as much to America as to Europe. Just as the British need, while remaining good European, to build and burnish their own new global networks ,so they need to work with the USA as a partner on the global stage, not as subservient and compliant follower of Washington’s lead.
Doing so in the past, acting as America’s so-called ‘poodle’, has led to numerous setbacks and damage to Britain’s reputation and pulling power. In particular, simplistic and missionary views of western democracy, promulgated by American zealots, need to be replaced by the subtler understanding of other forms of governance which British experience had acquired over centuries of experience.
Other barriers to Britain’s progress in the new global race (to use David Cameron’s repeated expression) have been a disastrous energy policy, interwoven with an equally damaging energy strategy conceived at EU level, and driving industry into a high-cost uncompetitive corner while doing little or nothing towards decarbonisation and fighting climate change dangers.
The book shows how European and British energy and climate policies have failed to tackle all tree aspects of the modern energy trilemma – affordable energy costs , secure and reliable energy supplies and decarbonisation . Costs have soared to the point where major industries are re-locating elsewhere, power supplies have grown more precarious, and may actually lead to power cuts, while green zealotry has drastically undermined the green cause.
Other delusions have stood in the way of a new opening for the British nation. Wrong-headed economic analysis, failure to build up Britain’s dazzling soft power potential, weak emphasis on innovation and lack of understanding about new supply chains and patterns, have all conspired to hold the country back.
In a world of hyper-connectivity the British can and must escape the ‘choice’ trap so avidly prescribed by foreign policy gurus – that they must ‘choose’ between an Atlantic and a European role. With skill and confidence an exceptionally favourable new position can now be engineered which leaves this so-called choice behind.
There are those who say that these ‘foreign policy’ issues are of no matter to the British electorate, whose minds are only on domestic items a such as health, education, crime and immigration. But they could not be more wrong, the book shows.
Britain’s positioning and relative place in the new connected world reaches far into national life and attitudes and interest at home. It concerns democracy, law, national identity, national purposes and priorities. It answers the question ‘Who are we, and why we should pull together? These are central voter concerns. They shape daily lives.
Almost beneath the radar of media interest, and beyond the gaze of the Westminster ‘village’ and its acolytes and reporters, a yearning is growing in British towns, villages, families and thoughts for a refreshed British story, a new narrative placing Britain at the electronic rather than the geographical centre of a network world.
The words must now be found to bring this story to life, to relate it to what is actually happening in the digital age to daily experience and concerns. The Commonwealth connection is a big part of that story and it is one which is beginning to impose its own growing relevance on the scene, even while the political class and the official world struggle to catch up.
Lord Howell chaired the annual meeting of the Windsor Energy Group at Windsor Castle in March 2014. The group is a not-for-profit organisation that brings together policy-makers and energy practitioners to review global energy developments. Earlier this year Ambassador Khaled Duwaisan of Kuwait, Dean to the Court of St James, hosted a briefing for many of London’s ambassadors on the issues raised by Lord Howell in his book on new networks now being created in diplomacy and commerce.