Finally, after two generations of political tethering, the United Kingdom is free from the European Union. Whatever its merits for those who genuinely believe in the concept of ever-closer union, the EU was always an unnatural berth for a country that has traditionally looked to the wider globe.
We now have the freedom to determine the shape of our own domestic laws and international policies but the validation of the concept of global Britain will come in its execution not simply in its vocal repetition. Brexit by itself is no panacea. What it does is offer a range of policy options that would otherwise not exist to any British government but on its own it will not herald a new era or usher in a new golden age.
At this crossroads in our history it will be our choices and our actions, not our slogans, that will determine which path we take. Making the most of Brexit will require vision for the future, courage in policy and boldness in execution. Government structures and departments will need to be properly configured at home and abroad and those who do not share this new ambition for the country will need to stand aside for those who do. This is one area where Dominic Cummings was undoubtedly right, and it remains an unfinished project.
There will be key questions that require urgent answers. How do we view our relationship with our former EU partners? While we may not have any appetite for the project of greater European integration (something that may be shared increasingly by others) there is still a huge overlap of interests economically, politically and in our mutual security. The future relationship agreement is a good start, but it is only a start.
Mending fences and building bridges should be a high priority for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, supported by the Treasury, as we seek to build links as a sovereign country for the first time in over 40 years with major European capitals. We will also have to give priority to considering our relationships with other key partnerships. Chief among them will be Nato, where Britain is the second biggest contributor and the fourth-largest military in the world and where the long-standing issue of European underinvestment must be faced.
American taxpayers’ patience will not be infinite and the less than supportive rhetoric of President Trump should be taken as a warning sign. Alongside this, we must consider how we wish to see the relationship develop with the others in the “five eyes” intelligence community (America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and whether we want to move beyond a security relationship into a more coherent alignment of foreign policy.
The Commonwealth will also be of crucial importance, comprising 2.4 billion people, 1/3 of the global total, with most of them under 30. This represents a phenomenal potential influence in global affairs if handled appropriately. Of course, there are huge differences between the largest and smallest nations and the most and least powerful but the common origins of political systems and the widespread sharing of a common approach to law offer unparalleled natural advantages and we have a natural leadership and co-ordinating role.
We will have to consider our approach to other, and often failing, multilateral institutions. The World Trade Organisation, which promised so much at its inception in 1995, is now tottering on the brink of failure. Even if the Biden administration is more intuitively supportive it will still be difficult to rescue an institution which has become rigid and inflexible and where protectionism by the world’s wealthiest countries threatens to undermine the concept of free trade and the ability of the least developed to trade their way sustainably out of poverty.
Equally, many of the other global institutions designed in the second half of the 20th century need to be updated for the changed realities of today. The UN, the OECD, the World Bank and the IMF would all benefit from British input that is less focused on the internal powerplay of the EU and more focused on an open, market-orientated and deregulated global economy.