16 March, 2020

Defining the modern United Kingdom: how can we unite at home and what role do we want to play in the world?

Under the shadow of the coronavirus, COBRA deliberations and evolving measures for containment and delay, this conference, chaired by the Rt Hon Lord Jonathan Hill Chairman of the Council of Management of The Ditchley Foundation provided a break from our current anxiety but also an early opportunity to note the deep and long-term implications of a global pandemic. With senior political figures (national and local),representation from the civil service, trade unions, think-tanks, journalists, academics, community organisations and including the EU Ambassador to the UK, the talk was of the future of the UK globally and internationally, and locally and domestically: what is global Britain, and can the UK work out ways to release itself from the stranglehold of centralised power to effectively devolve to more local democratic systems?

The resounding December 2019 election result appeared to deliver a release from three years of protracted political fallout following the 2016 referendum. But with movement comes the need for decisions and questions about the UK’s role in the world and how we maintain the Union are growing in urgency.

Power, agency and honesty were recurrent themes of this conference.  Domestically, the question of how to devolve power and to recreate the agency and self-determination people crave, was said to be the basis long-term for a more united UK. Internationally, making some of the geopolitical choices forced by the Brexit referendum decision look now to be unavoidable.  Much will depend not what on what we want but how the G2 world evolves.

The issues covered include:

  • The UK’s future trade and security negotiations with the EU. In a short timetable, now complicated by the impacts of the coronavirus, can trade be kept separate from processes for collaboration over foreign policy and security?
  • Britain has in the past played a global role supported by the force multiplier effect of the EU. Will the vision of Global Britain, (as yet underdeveloped), continue to depend on the twin pillars of the EU and the US, or will it inevitably lean more towards the US?
  • In the geopolitics of a G2 world (US and China), both described as highly transactional and further dominated by growing pressure from China, the choices Britain makes will have consequences.  
  • With rapid technological change, and uncertainty over the international rules-based order, would a Britain outside an institutional framework be in a better position to respond? This is not an ideological position but an expression of the realities of huge uncertainty.
  • The highly centralised character of power within the UK and the power of bureaucratic government was generally acknowledged. Can the UK decentralise? Can power devolve in ways that allow for experimentation to increase local and regional economic resilience and new forms of agency. For people to have more control over their own lives, devolved powers include those for tax and spend controls, leavers to influence economies, inward investment and education. Devolution, it was argued, is not a zero-sum game but can release entrepreneurial capacity.
  • Mayors are a democratic experiment, but they are still supplicants to central government. Greater constitutional power for Mayors such as a simple ‘right of reply’- to ask and get answers from central government would signal a change.
  • A plan for transitioning to a low carbon economy was offered as the basis for a vision of the UK.  The COP in Glasgow later this year is an opportunity for leadership in investing in technology and finance for climate, in requiring businesses to set out their plans for achieving net zero by 2030, to address high carbon sectors such as aviation, shipping, steel, cement, oil & gas, and for carbon capture and storage. Public decision-making to deliver social security for people between jobs and the education and skills to support the UK as it transitions to a new economy, is central to achieving such a vision.  Use of the ODA budget to support other countries to cope with the impacts of climate change could add a further international dimension. 

The full Director’s Note of this conference will be published shortly.