Since Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority election almost a year ago, political commentary has centred on the ‘Workington Man’, or in other words, the Red Wall voter.
It was in these constituencies where the Conservatives swept through and picked up seats from traditional Labour heartlands, and they remain a key electoral battleground if Boris Johnson wants to retain his majority in 2024. Consequently, we’ve seen a laser like focus on a key priority for these seats – reducing regional disparities, captured by the frequently used slogan of ‘levelling up.’
Less attention has been paid to what their views are on issues relating to foreign policy, but there have been an increasing number of studies this year which point to a similar conclusion. The British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG) published polling earlier in May that showed Britons living in the East Midlands (45%) and the North East (44%) are the “most inclined to support a foreign policy that prioritises economic and strategic defence interests.” And when it comes to supporting a foreign policy which prioritises human rights and democracy, there is weak support (11%).
Yet these sentiments are not only echoed in the North, but also in other Conservative swing seats in the South, where more than 80% agree that “the government should always put the needs of the British people ahead of others.” Whilst these are the broad strokes of public opinion in these areas, the question this poses is what does this mean for Boris Johnson’s vision of the future of Britain’s foreign policy. For those of us hoping to find answers in the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will have to wait longer, until the review’s publication date next year.
Yet in the last two weeks, we have seen three major foreign policy announcements on climate, defence and aid where a clear theme is emerging: British foreign policy will be as much domestically focused, as it will be globally orientated.
The announcement on climate was launched in the form of Johnson’s ten-point plan which promises a ‘green industrial revolution’. Despite being light on detail, it set out ten pledges on how the UK will reach net zero and become “the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance”. But more interestingly, the announcement was framed with numerous references to key Red Wall constituencies, and the explicit reference by the Prime Minister that “British towns and regions are now synonymous with green technology and jobs.” This was a foreign policy announcement demonstrating the UK’s commitment to the climate change agenda ahead of COP26 next year, but one that was deeply rooted in domestic terms through its focus on job generation.
The second major announcement was the biggest programme of investment in British defence since the end of the Cold War. The Prime Minister set out a £16.5 million increase above the Conservative’s manifesto commitment, which includes creating a National Cyber Force, a Space Command and a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence. Aside from defence and the armed forces receiving widespread support amongst the Conservative’s new and old voter base, similar to the climate announcement, the new additional spending was framed as not only protecting citizens and boosting the UK’s global standing, but also linked to “spreading prosperity to every corner of the UK” and creating up to 10,000 new jobs annually across the UK in the process. The defence announcement will help position the UK as a key defence partner for the US in Europe and in vital alliances such as NATO, but it was also pitched very clearly to a domestic audience by arguing that defence will “be at the forefront of creating the jobs and business opportunities that will help us build back from the pandemic.”
Finally, the third announcement, delivered in last week’s spending review, that UK aid would be cut from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% is an issue that has traditionally held widespread support across the UK public, including in Red Wall constituencies. Despite the backlash this has trigged amongst the Conservative backbenchers, from five former Prime Ministers, NGOs, and high profile individuals such as Malala and former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, this is a foreign policy announcement that carries global risk, but large domestic reward.
These new domestically focused foreign policy announcements may help boost public support for the Government’s overall global ambitions, and help bring the electorate with them on this journey. After all, the newly elected US President Joe Biden has promised to create a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ by “equip[ping] Americans to succeed in the global economy.”
However, the Government also faces the risk of setting its global agenda through the lens of what worked well in the latest focus group, leaving the UK’s Global Britain’ vision inconsistent, directionless and not very integrated. And at a time of great power competition, shifts in the global landscape, and two major global summits in 2021 where everyone will be looking to understand what kind of Britain emerges following its departure from the EU, the Government should not delay its Integrated Review any further. It will be key to understanding and defining the UK’s place in the world, and how these latest announcements all add up to a unified vision of ‘Global Britain’ that goes beyond the domestic pitch to Workington Man.