No one monitoring the latest machinations around Chinese balloons and the latest efforts to ‘get Brexit done’ could fail to ask what on earth is going on with the British Government. We are currently on our fifth Prime Minister since the referendum and still arguing about checks on celery crossing the Irish sea. Meanwhile, there’s a land war in Europe, a global energy crisis, and double-digit inflation. All these matters are complicated, but the way they are being addressed seems very far from the 2016 promise of ‘taking back control’. There are two narrative themes which may help explain the approach.
Sunak it would seem is a ‘glo-bro’: a head of state desperate to be seen as affable by fellow world leaders regardless of the impact on their domestic agenda. He is not unique, Cameron hugged huskies and deepened his special relationship with Obama by having him interfere in the Brexit referendum. Johnson was an Olympic Mayor, then invited the UN to consider his leadership on climate change by reference to a puppet controlled by a hand suppository. Blair manufactured a dossier of evidence of weapons of mass destruction to please his ‘best pal’ George. Glo-bros all of them.
Quite a lot of Sunak’s thinking on China and EU relations appears to be driven by a desire to please Biden, despite the self-declared Irish-American US President’s occasional outbursts of performative hostility to the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland.
The Glob are not internationalists. Internationalists want the world to be a better place through trade, diplomacy, competition, and agreements while respecting national differences. The ‘Global Britain’ approach envisaged by liberal Brexiteers. The Glob wants a rules-based order and conformity, underpinned by their own vision of technocratic rigour, where they are the technocrats.
Olly Robbins, the former advisor to Theresa May, and alleged future advisor to Keir Starmer, is the archetype. His politics being more flexible and less important than his need to be in the room where the decisions are made, and more fundamentally to be the person having made those decisions, whoever eventually takes the credit. Democratic institutions like Parliament are less sovereign than irritants to be navigated for the Glob.
While the glo-bros attend conferences, wave flags, and issue statements, the Glob decides what those statements will be, generally weeks in advance of the meetings.
Although the glo-bros are titularly in charge, they are highly reliant on the quality of advice they receive and can be manipulated by their Globby gatekeepers. The issue was stark during the May administration where it was self-evident that the Brexit deal being made was both unworkable and weighted in the EU’s favour. But, the Prime Minister ploughed on, allowing Robbins to shut out dissenting forces, until forced out by the MPs in her own party.
Johnson, more surprisingly as a populist, acted as though he was unaware of the gulf between elite opinion on the importance of UK leadership on climate change, and public opinion which remains more concerned with fuel bills and staying warm. But then he surrounded himself with Notting Hill eco-warriors.
Cameron and Osborne, like Sunak, were keen on rapprochement with China but allowed themselves to be blindsided by self-interested City investors keen to play down evidence of Xi Jinping’s alarming slide into authoritarian retrenchment. None of them have acted sensibly (until recently) in relation to Putin’s many transgressions against his neighbours, and the risk it presented to European energy supplies.
It’s a simplification, as all narrative devices must be, but there’s a grain of truth in it. It’s a postscript to the climatic scene in the screen version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day which considers the role gentleman ‘amateurs’ – the glo-bros of their era, played during the interwar period, and how it contributed to appeasement. In that scene the Glob or ‘professionals’, represented in the character of an American congressman, played by Christopher Reeve, are the clear-eyed heroes dealing with reality.
However, nearly 100 years on we’re seeing the problems with both. We live in a world designed by post-war technocrats, whose institutions are proving just as incapable of responding quickly to evident threats, when they collide with their own relationships and priorities. It’s public choice economics for global players.
A Reeve in a modern reimagining would turn up at Ditchley Park, reminding Mandelson et. al. that they are meddling in matters decided by elections and need to bring people with them. Then would leave in despair as they carried on regardless, provoking a return to violence in Northern Ireland, saddling Britain with regulations over which they have no say, and industrial policies to suit the last set of lobbyists they bumped into at the Commonwealth Club. Perhaps the issue is less to do with amateurism and people pleasing, or professionalism and utopian central planning, but just the lack of pragmatism and purpose.
Leaders need to lead, and have a vision, not just turn up. Advisors need to advise, but constantly check their own assumptions against what is happening and the mandate of elected politicians. We can surely do better than a world run by glo-bros and the Glob?