Skip to content

Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Conclusions and Recommendations

Article by Adam Hug, Dr Abigael Baldoumas, Katy Chakrabortty and Dr Danny Sriskandarajah

March 3, 2020

Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Conclusions and Recommendations

The extent to which the United Kingdom is to be taken seriously on the world stage post-Brexit will depend significantly on whether it has the confidence to stand up for what it says it believes in, or risk its focus on trade being seen as a sign of weakness and inexorable decline. There is a widely shared fear, particularly in the short to medium term as the UK completes its conscious uncoupling from the European Union, that commercial considerations will overwhelm other priorities. If the UK is seen to ignore its stated values and wider strategic interests in pursuit of new trade deals, the Brexit process will have diminished the UK’s standing in the world rather than marking the start of a new and more vibrant chapter. The UK must aspire to be more than simply a cold, wet Dubai.

A whole-government approach to the UK’s foreign policy is to be welcomed. However, it is important to ensure that the UK’s values do not get lost amid inter-departmental wrangling; they must instead be mainstreamed to all those involved in policy-making and delivery. A joined-up government should not come at the expense of the world’s poorest people or those facing human rights abuses and conflict.

The UK has an opportunity to articulate a powerful vision for ‘Global Britain’ that is defined by commitments to human rights, inclusive representation at home and abroad, and by the ways it uses resources to have the greatest impact on poverty and inequality. The current Foreign Secretary has said that the ‘guiding lights’ for the current integrated policy review ‘will be free trade, democracy, human rights and the international rule of law’.[1] Different stakeholders and political actors will have different views about what should be contained in such a statement of values, but whatever the government decides, a clear, concise declaration that enumerates the key principles would be very helpful. Authors in this collection have set out potential principles for such a declaration including ensuring policy alignment with the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs); ensuring wider representation of women, young people and marginalised communities (both from the UK and our partners in the Global South) in the policy development process; and ensuring that policies uphold longstanding goals around support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Baroness Anelay has written about the need to incorporate the ‘Ruggie Principles’ on business and human rights into the UK trade agenda.[2] Stephen Twigg has spoken in detail about the need for a clear set of indicators on economic inequality and the centrality of gender to development to assess policy impact. Marissa Conway makes the case that a feminist foreign policy would provide a strong ethical framework to guide decisions and set a new international standard. The Government’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review should help define and refine these principles into a clear and codified statement of the values of ‘Global Britain’ that would give an unambiguous signal to the international community and to stakeholders across the Government.

Building on such a statement of values, the Government should consider enhancing existing consultation practices by setting a ‘Global Britain’ values test for all major policy and spending decisions with an international dimension, including trade deals. This would set out the Government’s impact assessment of how each decision will affect the goals enumerated in the ‘Global Britain’ values statement and examine its implications for the needs of future generations and the most vulnerable people in the world. The results of this assessment should then be published ahead of decisions being taken to encourage feedback, input and scrutiny from Parliament, key stakeholders and the wider public.

Keeping in mind the ideals of good governance, transparency and accountability that the UK looks to promote abroad, the Government should think carefully about how it develops new decision-making processes. It should rethink its current approach that limits parliamentary accountability and public scrutiny over trade deals. Given past critiques of decision-making in the EU when the UK was a member, new processes in Westminster should not be less publicly accountable than the processes for scrutiny by the European Parliament, Member States and public that it has just left. As proposed by Ruth Bergan and Dr Emily Jones, the government should publish its draft negotiating mandates (with headline information about priorities); the International Trade Select Committee or a new Trade Scrutiny Committee needs to be involved in regular dialogue with ministers and officials with scope for proper scrutiny on the progress of ongoing negotiations; and the agreed trade deals should be subject to a proper debate and approval vote in Parliament.[3] Similarly, new UK trade deals should have at least as strong human rights clauses as the deals being done by the EU and where possible it should seek to strengthen them.

While developing its own foreign policy independent of the EU, the UK still needs to show it is willing to work with like-minded partners. This will not only involve seeking to build a strong foreign policy and security partnership with the EU as part of the post-Brexit process, but it should also seek to enhance or create a range of bilateral mechanisms with Member States that augment, but do not seek to replace, relationships with the EU, such as UK-France defence cooperation under the Lancaster House Treaties and continued involvement in the E3 group on Iran.[4] As Lord McConnell argues, the UK must also seek to deepen relations with countries who share similar values and not-dissimilar strategic positions, such as Canada, Japan and New Zealand, with the UK-Canadian joint Campaign on Media Freedom being an important example of the potential for joint working.[5] The UK will also need to retain an active presence at international forums to project its continuing global role – as Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood points out, the absence of senior ministers from the February 2020 Munich Security Conference was not seen as a good sign by Britain’s international partners.

Alongside new state-level alliances, the government should reaffirm its commitment to working in partnership with civil society. Civil society networks reinforce and deepen state-level cooperation. Many of the authors in this collection highlight the role of civil society in tackling so many of the challenges facing the world today: Baroness Anelay on delivering international development goals; Jonathan Cohen, Dr Theresa Dumasy and Richard Reeve on peacebuilding and security; Marissa Conway on shaping values-based foreign policy; Ruth Bergen and Dr Emily Jones on trade; and Sophie Howe on sustainable societies. Globally, restrictions on civil society space are increasing,[6] but the government should ensure that its own actions, including counter-terrorism agendas, do not inadvertently restrict civil society space further.

A clear focus on continued engagement in the UK’s neighbourhood aligns with its capabilities, the threats it faces and its opportunities. Given the pressure on Europe’s eastern flank from Russia, the UK should continue to show its support for the Baltic States and other NATO Member States, as well as with Ukraine. There will also be scope to show renewed and enhanced engagement with NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (CoE), working within them to reform their processes and ensure that they meet both their founding objectives and the values and priorities which the UK is seeking to promote.[7] It will be important to ensure that the contentious domestic debate about the way in which the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British law through the Human Rights Act takes place in a way that does not undermine the UK’s commitment to the Convention itself nor the UK’s membership of the CoE, or further encourage other CoE members to ignore their responsibilities under the Convention.[8]

One way to show that the UK is not being overly cowed by commercial constraints will be ensuring that UK ambassadors feel supported and encouraged to speak out on human rights and other abuses taking place in the countries where they are posted. Such actions should often be coordinated with other like-minded partners to benefit from strength in numbers, whilst not being afraid to show leadership where necessary. Ministerial statements should follow a similar approach. While the UK is not in a position to dictate terms to countries abusing human rights and other international values, such statements are often of significant value to local activists working to defend their rights.

With the spectre of a no-deal Brexit removed, immediate concerns about existing EU funding for UK non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through 2020 have been alleviated.[9] However, it remains unclear how and in what form the £1.5 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA) that is currently dispensed through EU mechanisms will be repatriated. As has been argued by a number of authors, not least Baroness Anelay and Theo Clarke MP, our development expertise and aid budget remain major global assets in building a values-based foreign policy. The government’s integrated review should be an opportunity for development expertise to have influence across our foreign policy, creating policy coherence for development, and therefore maintain a values-based and long-term strategic vision for our foreign policy that helps create a more peaceful, prosperous, and equitable world for all. Proposals to subsume the Department for International Development (DFID) under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) should be shelved, and the government should ensure that aid spending across all departments retains a strong poverty focus – in line with the International Development Act. At an operational level, DFID could explicitly consider the impact of development programming on economic inequality. This could, for instance, result in greater focus on supporting the public provision of health, high quality education and social protection.

The UK is an international centre of excellence for peacebuilding, with experienced NGOs and academic experts who have until recently received a significant proportion of their project funding through pooled EU grants. It will be important to ensure that as funding streams are repatriated to direct UK control this expertise is maintained and developed. This may mean reviewing and revising existing UK mechanisms for funding peacebuilding to ensure that they are agile and appropriate for civil society peacebuilding work. Similarly, existing support for the FCO’s human rights and governance initiatives, both through embassies and through centrally coordinated schemes should be built upon and enhanced, rather than risk marginalisation behind economic and trade priorities. Wherever possible such mechanisms should be flexible enough to support smaller and specialist NGOs and experts, rather than being more accessible to large consultancies as can be the case.

As the Foreign Secretary has already announced, one way to show leadership on human rights issues would be to increase the use of ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions against human rights abusers who have some financial connections to the UK. The use of these and other financial instruments, such as Unexplained Wealth Orders, are to be warmly welcomed but it is important to ensure they are being used consistently based on the level of wrongdoing rather than the strategic alignment of their country of origin.[10] To assist with this process, it will be vital to ensure the full implementation of the Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, as set out in the Queen’s Speech, which will finally create the long-awaited beneficial ownership register for UK properties owned by offshore-entities, as well as the wider 2019–2022 Economic Crime Plan.[11]

As is made clear by the essays on trade from Ruth Bergen and Dr Emily Jones, as well as by Baroness Anelay, it is impossible to separate global political foreign policy from international economic issues. The promotion of an international rules-based order also requires the UK to lead in setting and enforcing fair global economic rules that work for everyone and that deliver positive outcomes in line with the SDGs as well as international commitments on climate change and human rights. Baroness Anelay’s suggestion to include economic issues in the remit of the National Security Council is one part of a solution, but it also requires articulating solutions to global economic challenges that put the rights and needs of people at the centre. It will mean putting our own house in order as well as working to make the global economic rules as fair as possible. The ongoing OECD-BEPS discussions, including a minimum effective corporate tax rate, are one opportunity for the UK to engage positively to strengthen international governance. Meanwhile, the UK should ensure its own Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies continue to reform to achieve higher standards of tax transparency.[12]

The United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26) represents a chance for real climate leadership from the UK Government and is the first big test of a values-based vision for ‘Global Britain’. As Caroline Lucas MP argues, this will be dependent on investment in the hard work of diplomacy to raise the ambition of other nations’ plans to reduce emissions, getting our own house in order at home, and a relentless focus on a just way forward for the countries and communities worst affected. Beyond the COP, policy coherence is key. As Caroline Lucas sets out clearly, the government cannot continue to finance fossil fuel projects overseas while claiming climate leadership. The UK’s trade regime could be a powerful expression of its commitment to environmental and sustainability policy, as Ruth Bergen and Dr Emily Jones make clear. The government should review all trade provisions in its trade agreements to ‘stress test’ them against climate goals as well as human rights commitments, potentially using the suggested ‘Global Britain’ values process outlined above.

In a fast-changing world with new powers rising, old institutions struggling and future challenges emerging, having a clear approach to values in British foreign policy is not just about doing what we think is right but about ensuring we are actively helping to shape the international systems, norms and rules that the UK will have to work within for decades to come. The threats to the idea of liberal democracy from increasingly confident authoritarian states and internal strains and inequalities in established democracies are real, and need to be addressed to halt and reverse its decline. As a medium-sized power, albeit one with considerable assets, the UK will need to show it is still willing to work collaboratively with partners, and to use the tools of influence available to it to creatively and meaningfully shape the future direction of the international system and to respond effectively to specific crises and abuses of its values.


Based on the findings of this publication that values should be an important part of the foundations of future UK foreign policy, we would like to make a number of recommendations.

The UK Government should:

  • Agree a clear ‘Global Britain’ values statement of the principles underpinning the UK’s role in the world.
  • Use the values statement to develop a ‘Global Britain Benchmark’ that assesses the impact of new policies against these principles.
  • Demonstrate a renewed commitment to engage with and reform the regional and multilateral institutions the UK remains a part of, while building new partnerships for the future.
  • Defend and maintain the spirit as well as the fact of its commitment to allocate 0.7 per cent Gross National Income (GNI) to international development assistance by:
  • Keeping a separate Department for International Development with a Secretary of State for International Development;
  • Ensuring aid spending across all departments retains a strong poverty focus – in line with the International Development Act; and by the
  • Coordination and sharing of best practice on aid spending, which would see other government departments meeting higher standards on aid transparency.
  • Show that the UK still has the confidence and stature to stand up for its values by supporting those who defend them, and speaking out and taking action when they are abused, by:
  • Encouraging ambassadors and ministers to condemn human rights abuses wherever they occur;
  • Actively using and equitably applying new ‘Magnitsky’-style personal sanctions;
  • Fully implementing new measures to improve financial transparency, and take further action on tax havens; and
  • Increasing and improving UK funding for peacebuilding and human rights.
  • Remain actively committed to the promotion of human rights, defence and security in the European neighbourhood, of which the UK is still a part.
  • Take decisive and immediate action to demonstrate climate leadership, including:
    • Announcing a high-ambition Nationally Defined Contribution (NDC) for COP26 and working with countries around the world to aim for increased ambition in their NDCs, in time to know how much is left to do to close the gap between current plans and the aim of limiting warming to 1.5°C;
    • Scaling up resources to impacted communities, including a new goal for climate finance for adaptation, and leading efforts to find new and additional sources of finance for loss and damage;
    • Immediately stopping all new support for fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) and phasing out existing investments;
    • Implementing policies at home that demonstrably put us on track for net zero as soon as possible, without using international offsets, and recognising that – without the inclusion of consumption emissions – this is only part of the job.
  • Ensure efforts to address international economic issues are joined up with global political foreign policy by:
    • Including economic issues within the remit of the National Security Council; and
    • Partaking fully in the OECD-BEPS discussions, including on a minimum effective corporate tax rate, as well as ensuring that the UK’s own Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies continue to reform to meet higher standards of tax transparency.


Adam Hug became Director of the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) in November 2017. He had previously been the Policy Director at the FPC from 2008–2017. His research focuses on human rights and governance issues, particularly in the former Soviet Union. He also writes on UK and EU foreign policy.

Dr Abigael Baldoumas is a humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam GB. She holds a DPhil in Political Science from Oxford University on the role of social movements in shaping public policy in the UK. She has worked in international development since 2012. Her work focuses on forced displacement, gender justice and rights-based humanitarian response.

Katy Chakrabortty is the head of advocacy at Oxfam GB. She has been at Oxfam since 2009, and as well as political relations work she has played a major role in Oxfam’s Even it Up campaign against extreme economic inequality. Her background is in political campaigning and parliamentary advocacy, having previously worked for the Electoral Reform Society, Amnesty International and DeHavilland.

Dr Danny Sriskandarajah joined Oxfam GB as chief executive in January 2019 from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance of which he was Secretary General for six years. Prior to that he was Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation and held various posts at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

[1] FCO and The Rt Hon Dominic Rabb MP, Foreign Secretary’s introduction to the Queen’s Speech debate, January 2020,

[2]Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework and Guiding Principles,

[3] For more background see: Trade Justice Movement, Securing democracy in UK Trade policy, November 2017,

[4] Ministry of Defence, UK and France defence cooperation, September 2018,; Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street and The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, E3 statement on the JCPoA: 12 January 2020,

[5] There are of course a number of caveats raised about the lack of clear actions being taken from the work so far as highlighted by campaign groups such as: Article 19, UK: Government must take more action on media freedom, September 2019,; Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Liberty is under attack as journalists are silenced, say MPs, UK Parliament, September 2019,

[6] Danny Sriskandarajah, Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing, Open Democracy, January 2018,

[7] See for example the ideas set out in: Adam Hug, Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, The Foreign Policy Centre, February 2016,; and Adam Hug, Institutionally Blind: The next steps in reforming the Council of Europe and the OSCE, The Foreign Policy Centre, November 2017,

[8] David Maddox, Attorney General vows to change Human Rights Act and limit power of Supreme Court judges, Daily Express, February 2020,

[9] DFID, EU-funded programmes under the withdrawal agreement, January 2020,

[10] Home Office, Circular 003/2018: unexplained wealth orders, February 2018,

[11] Transparency International UK, Measures to tackle dirty money in UK property market a major step in fight against corruption, December 2019,; HM Treasury and Home Office, Economic crime plan 2019 to 2022, July 2019,

[12] The OECD and G20 are working on a new Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) framework to address corporate tax avoidance. See

Photo credit: Lighthouse and sunset, Isle of Skye. Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre