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A UK Foreign Policy Renaissance

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, May 2022

How the launch of a new Scottish Council on Global Affairs builds on growing UK foreign policy.

The launch last month of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs (SCGA) is the latest development in an ongoing renaissance across UK foreign policy research and debate outside government.

SCGA, a collaboration between the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews, is a new, non-partisan institute for policy relevant research and debate on international issues. Wilton Park along with colleagues from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) have supported the evolution of the institute and attended the launch event in Edinburgh Castle. SCGA’s launch has also received support from both the UK and Scottish Governments.

“The UK Government is proud to be working with the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. Bringing three great universities together to create a new foreign policy Think Tank will provide tremendous benefit to Scotland, and the whole of the United Kingdom.”

Minister Amanda Milling, Minister of State for Asia and the Middle East, FCDO

“The new Scottish Council on Global Affairs, Scotland’s first global affairs institute, will be marked by its academic freedom…. Although the Scottish Government warmly welcomes and supports the establishment of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs – as committed to in our latest Programme for Government – this initiative is independent, supported as it is by parties across the political spectrum, making it truly non-partisan.”

Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Scottish Government

That cross-party support and intellectual independence is crucial for the future of SCGA, but securing it is a sign of the growing consensus that international and domestic issues are increasingly intertwined, and, as asserted in the UK government’s recent Integrated Review, that the UK’s defence, trade, diplomacy and development efforts be shown to benefit citizens right across the UK.

This growing focus on UK foreign policy, accelerated by the Brexit referendum, represents an important shift that has its roots in the immediate Post-Cold War period of the 1990s.

The Centre for European Reform (CER) was amongst the earliest, being established in 1996, joined in 1998 by the Foreign Policy Centre, established by leading foreign policy figures around Labour to act as a progressive counterweight to organisations such as Chatham House.

The Henry Jackson Society (HJS) followed in 2005 by students and academics from Cambridge University. Named after a notable liberal hawkish US Senator, HJS has a distinctly US and UK centric approach and has not shied away from advocating UK foreign policy positions in pursuit of the national interest.

Finally; the Legatum Institute (LI) was established in 2007 by Alan McCormick and a range of interests led by Christopher Chandler, owner of the Dubai based Legatum Group.

These organisations however remained small, and non-party political policy engagement with Brexit remained, in retrospect, surprisingly limited in the run up to the 2016 Referendum.

The first new organisation to step into this vacuum was UK in a Changing Europe, run out of Kings College London, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and led by Professor Anand Menon. Launched in late 2015, UK in a Changing Europe has been staffed by a range of academics and experts who may have for the most part come across as personally sceptical of the decision to leave, but engaged seriously with all sides of the debate, and early on included expertise, such as that of Professor Matthew Goodwin, which was highly critical of Remain arguments.

UK in a Changing Europe was, by definition, focused on European dimensions to UK foreign policy, and the implication of Brexit. A more widely focussed initiative, intended to respond to the paradigm shift which Brexit represented, was the British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG), launched in late 2016. The BFPG was originally conceived as a proposal amongst younger staff at Chatham House back in 2008 who felt there was a growing need for a focus on the mechanics of UK foreign policy which was non-partisan, but unashamedly supportive of an effective and influential UK in the world. It was also felt there was a growing need to better connect foreign policy thinking and influence in Whitehall to the communities around the UK which our foreign policy should serve.

Since 2016, there has been an invigoration of UK foreign policy focus in many ways. Universities such as Birmingham City University, have established important initiatives and centres to understand the implications for UK Foreign Policy. The British International Studies Association has been re-invigorated under Juliet Dryden. The Foreign Policy Centre, until recently in decline, has been overhauled and reenergised under Adam Hug.

The Council on Geostrategy, led by Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene, and former HJS co-founder James Rogers HJS, have quickly achieved a level of ambition, energy and influence on UK foreign policy issues that many far more established players must envy. Even established thinktanks have deepened their focus on UK foreign policy, most recently Chatham House through the launch of it’s ‘UK in the World’ initiative in 2022.

Yet with notable exceptions, the vast majority of new UK foreign policy activity outside government has remained largely London-centric. This is why the launch of SCGA is so significant. The UK beyond London benefits from significant expertise and influence on international issues that remains poorly networked and insufficiently understood by UK policy makers. UK cities, regions and devolved nations are increasingly thinking more strategically about their international position, just as their counterparts are doing so around the world. Their perspective is increasingly important for Whitehall based policy makers who want to understand and positively engage with the full spectrum of international touchpoints and stakeholders present across the UK. This is particularly true as our international partners and competitors are increasingly sophisticated in how they understand, engage with and influence counterparts in different parts of the UK.

Scotland has a significant range of internationally informed and influential actors across academia, civil society and business. Yet these centres of expertise rarely seem networked sufficiently to generate impact or awareness appropriate to their combined weight. By providing a stronger set of Scottish perspectives on international issues, SCGA will play an important role in ensuring varied and informed policy making which reflect the needs of communities right across these islands. This is an agenda which Wilton Park fully supports as part of our work to ensure UK and international policy debate benefits from the full diversity of our Union. We look forward to working with SCGA, and other centres of international expertise around the UK, for both national and international benefit.

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