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Global Britain for an open world? – Conclusions and Recommendations

Article by Adam Hug and Devin O'Shaughnessy

October 19, 2021

Global Britain for an open world? – Conclusions and Recommendations

This publication has set out in detail the scale of the global threat to open societies and put forward practical ideas for how the UK can play an active role in the defence of democracy, good governance and human rights. The UK needs to develop bold and integrated strategies for its own future use and a package of measures that can be proposed as its contribution to the Summit for Democracy (S4D). The essay contributions in this collection provide a rich set of proposals and ideas that go far beyond what can be wrapped into a simple conclusion but this endeavours to capture some of the key points for action raised by our experts.


First things first, the UK must get its own house in order to be consistent in its principles both at home and abroad. The recent Pandora Papers highlight yet again the central role played by the UK and its overseas territories in the financial networks that support autocratic regimes and closed societies around the world. The UK Government needs to deliver on the long-promised beneficial ownership register for property; it should transform or abolish Scottish limited partnerships; reform Companies House and increase both its staffing levels and those of the National Economic Crime Centre constituent partners (such as the National Crime Agency, Serious Fraud Office and HMRC) to give them the capacity to check registry information and undertake enforcement action. It should do more to tackle libel tourism and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to stop international autocrats using the UK courts as a tool to muzzle dissent. The UK needs to take further action to improve transparency and protect against foreign influence of the political process. The Government’s approach to immigration also needs to leave space for the emergency protection of those most at risk of being targeted by authoritarian regimes.


The Government should reconsider some of its current approach to respected UK institutions such as the BBC, universities, and civil society groups if it is to maintain its position as a ‘soft power superpower’. A culture war could lead to collateral damage to Britain’s international standing and risks giving the green light to authoritarians seeking to undermine their own independent institutions in a more expansive fashion. Furthermore, the Government should rethink and revise measures in new legislation currently under debate such as the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill and the Elections Bill that restrict the right to protest or to vote in ways which have attracted international opprobrium. The UK’s ability to lead positive change internationally will be influenced by how other countries perceive the way it practices the principles of an open society at home, as well as what it preaches through its foreign policy.


When looking at how to make its case internationally the UK should be clear that the occurrence of open societies and open economies are clearly correlated but that causation is rooted in the institutions of open governance, rule of law and a pluralistic political environment that underpin them both. In these economically challenging times the cause of open societies and liberal democracy needs to be married with economic justice, greater opportunities and ensuring ordinary people have a stake in the economy and political life. UK foreign assistance needs to help rebuild trust in both open economies and societies by working towards a position where market institutions fairly apply the same rules to everyone, corruption is under control, inequality is reduced, businesses operate ethically and there is dialogue and collaboration between economic forces, civil society and democratic institutions.


The UK needs to protect and nurture its soft power strength from the risk of being hollowed out at times of budget cuts and political pressures. The mix of different soft power strengths should give the UK a unique ability to serve as a ‘Library of Democracy’, a globally connected soft power hub and resource centre to support the cause of open societies around the world. As a middle power, albeit with a number of important international assets, the UK needs to work effectively and in new ways with like-minded partners amongst donor countries, in the global south and in civil society to maximise its impact on behalf of the cause of open societies.


This publication sets out a number of ways in which the UK could seek to rethink and reform its approach to foreign policy and international aid to support open societies and human rights. It argues that the UK should seek to be ‘Doing Development Democratically’ (DDD), a long-term integrated cross-governmental approach that includes investing directly in democracy assistance programmes.


This DDD approach argues that the UK should act with ‘democratic sensitivity’, as any UK initiative conducted in or with a country will interact with its political systems and the Government should understand the positive or negative effects this may have for its democratic health. As Graham Teskey and Tom Wingfield argue, the FCDO should assess country strategy and individual programmes for unintended consequences and commit to a time-bound, measurable realignment if required. The UK should try to ensure at a minimum, that its actions do no harm to a country’s democracy, and ideally strengthens it by reinforcing local ownership, good governance, transparency, accountability, inclusion, and respect for human and democratic rights.


Working with partners, the UK should create a ‘Democracy Premium’ of clear and visible incentives for governments that show a demonstrated commitment to democracy and human rights, by offering a package that could include: additional foreign aid; trade preferences on more beneficial terms; enhanced access to international development finance; security guarantees; debt relief; technical support; and diplomatic engagement and participation in sought after international and regional agreements. Disincentives for backsliding should also be considered.


The important role that women’s political leadership can play in making government more accountable and democratic, while curbing issues like corruption, is evidenced by a number of authors including Rt Hon Maria Miller and in the introduction. It is vital that UK expertise in this area is not lost as the result of the perceived reprioritisation in the Integrated Review and that women’s rights and political leadership should be fully integrated into the wider Open Societies Agenda, learning from feminist foreign policy approaches in Sweden and Canada.


Similarly both the UK and the international community need to be able to respond quickly and decisively to bolster democratic opportunities when they present themselves. Taking an entrepreneurial approach to embedding open societies and in partnership with others, the UK could help deliver a ‘democratic surge’ of political, practical and financial support to buttress democratic openings and sustain them until change becomes embedded over the long term.


Which countries are chosen as key partners will be likely guided by UK strategic priorities but should not be bound by them. Decision-making must also be informed by where the UK can most effectively be a ‘force for good’ and to seize opportunities that arise. However, as set out in the introduction, there is an argument that investment in democratic development in regional leaders (i.e. ‘swing states’), often likely to be of wider strategic interest to the UK, can have an important role in diffusing open society principles across their wider regions.


This flexibility needs to be built into a strategic approach that reflects the long-term nature of change that is being supported in order to promote open societies and an open international system. The FCDO should explore extending its planning and delivery horizons to reflect this. Phil Mason argues that the FCDO should explore restoring the ten-year programming frameworks previously used by DFID, not an unreasonable approach given the Integrated Review is currently framed around the Prime Minister and Government’s 2030 Vision.


The publication recognises that the UK will continue to work with and provide support to countries that are not democracies and whose governments have no intentions to become one. However, it is important not to mislabel such governance work and other projects in autocracies as supporting democratic development or to pretend (‘democracy washing’) that such partners are ‘emerging democracies’ despite all the evidence to the contrary. Such work needs to be constantly reviewed to ensure it is delivering tangible outcomes, particularly in relation to security sector support.


Irrespective of the political situation of a country UK engagement should seek to build on a core platform of tacking corruption, promoting the rule of law and protecting freedom of expression (with a UK focus on media freedom). These are areas that are mutually reinforcing and can underpin wider progress towards other open societies goals. Phil Mason makes clear that technocratic box-ticking procedures are not enough to root out corruption and that there is a need for wider reform to the political and social culture, improving the quality of governance to greatly reduce graft. As a number of authors make clear, political will is key to effective implementation and delivering long-term change to governance standards, corruption and political pluralism. As Graham Teskey and Tom Wingfield also explain local context in institutional design is key, as more established Western institutions can potentially be sources of inspiration and support but should not be models for uncritical emulation, unmoored from local experiences.


Given the substantial cuts to Official Development Assistance (ODA), the UK will need to compensate by more effectively using all the other tools available to it in an integrated manner to move the Open Societies Agenda forwards. Many of these key tools have been outlined in the mechanisms for a ‘Democracy Premium’ outlined above, but it also means that ambassadors and ministers will need to spend greater political capital by speaking out more regularly on cases involving activists at risk, the unjustly imprisoned and to protect civic space bilaterally and multilaterally, both in private and in public. It should use its non-ODA funding mechanisms strategically in countries not eligible for aid but where impact could be important (including places like Poland, Hungary, Kuwait and Oman). The UK also needs to use and expand its new ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions regime to ensure rapid, coordinated and targeted sanctions are imposed against high level officials involved in orchestrating gross human rights violations along with the other measures to protect civic space that Iva Dobichina, Poonam Joshi, Sarah Green and James Savage argue for in their essay.


Graham Teskey and Tom Wingfield rightly argue for the need for some humility, understanding that in many cases the influence of external actors, such as the UK, will be more marginal to the cause of open societies than might be desired. They are right that diplomacy and aid cannot ‘deliver’ an open society by themselves and that supporting local actors who want to live in open societies are crucial to the success of any endeavour, what Stephen Twigg calls ‘the vital role of citizens, civil society organisations and other stakeholders in maximising the impact of any strategy’. Twigg also makes clear the ‘importance of multilateral action to bring together an alliance of countries, institutions and networks to take an issue forward’. Ideas for new international cooperation mechanisms include the Global Partnership for the Rule of Law suggested by Murray Hunt, which would bring together global collaborators under the leadership of a former world leader. The existing UK-Canada cooperation on the Media Freedom Coalition, provides a model to be built on for other bilateral and ‘minilateral’ initiatives to support open societies. James Deane and Murray Hunt respectively set out a persuasive argument for the development of an International Fund for Public Interest Media and a Global Fund for the Rule of Law, pooling resources from governments around the world as well as NGOs and (where appropriate) private sector partners.


However, the international partnership approach should fit alongside the understandable desire to strengthen UK based open society and democracy assistance capacity. Again using a pooled approach an Open Societies Fund could be created – potentially ring-fenced from the Conflict Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) – and be delivered by a consortium of British organisations (‘Team UK’), particularly from the not-for-profit sector and including appropriate arms-length bodies. These ‘best of British’ organisations would be capable not only of delivering impactful programming and generating soft power dividends, but could also be increasing competitive in securing EU, other European, and US-funding, further stimulating their growth and capabilities.


As hosts of COP26 – the most important climate conference since the 2015 Paris Accords – the UK has an unmissable opportunity to link combatting climate change and wider environmental degradation to the Open Societies Agenda. As Rafael Jimenez Aybar writes, if democracies are to thrive, they need to be better at solving ‘wicked problems’ like combatting global warming, protecting biodiversity, and speeding up the green energy transition. If solved through democratic means – realised through the three pillars of environmental democracy, namely environmental openness, participation, and access to justice – the result should be more just, widely accepted solutions that meet the incredible challenge humanity is facing. The UK could throw considerable weight behind WFD’s Environmental Democracy Conference, planned for 2022, making it an officially UK sanctioned Summit for Democracy side event, and kickstarting a global push to advance environmental democracy via multilateral and bilateral channels.


The challenge facing the UK and other countries seeking to reverse the retreat of democracy and open societies around the world is substantial but with the right approach and the necessary political will it is a far from insurmountable one. This publication has set a wide range of ideas that, if absorbed and acted upon, can certainly help the UK show a ‘renewed commitment to (being) a force for good in the world – defending openness, democracy and human rights’ that will be necessary for ‘shaping the open international order of the future’.



The individual essays make a wide range of important suggestions for reform and action in their respective areas of policy. They include that:

  • The UK must get its own house in order. A programme of domestic reform should include:
    • Delivering a beneficial ownership register for property; reforming and better resourcing Companies House, the National Crime Agency, Serious Fraud Office and HMRC; and transforming or abolishing Scottish limited partnerships;
    • Rethinking and revising restrictions to the right to protest and vote in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill and the Elections Bill; and
    • Protecting the UK’s soft power strength and avoiding undermining UK institutions so that the UK can act as a ‘Library of Democracy’, a democratic resource for the world.
  • The UK should commit to ‘Doing Development Democratically. This should include:
    • Acting with ‘Democratic Sensitivity’ by understanding the impact of UK decisions on a country’s democracy, seeking to do no harm and instead supporting openness;
    • Creating a ‘Democracy Premium’ of incentives for governments committed to democracy and human rights. Offering additional foreign aid, trade preferences, international development finance, security guarantees, debt relief, technical support, diplomatic engagement and access to international agreements;
    • Responding to emerging opportunities for reform by delivering a ‘Democratic Surge’ of political, practical and financial support to buttress democratic openings; and
    • Ensuring women’s political leadership plays a central role in the upcoming International Development Strategy and other FCDO policies.
  • The FCDO should invest in UK election observation capacity including a rapid response fund and push countries harder to deliver reforms on the basis of observation reports.
  • Ambassadors and Ministers should speak out more on human rights abuses and use Magnitsky sanctions to go after abusers.
  • The UK should support open data by creating ‘Digital Open Champions’ to drive reform at home and making it a key plank of its approach to aid and international regulatory bodies.
  • Support the development, funding and mobilisation of the International Fund for Public Interest Media and the establishment of a Global Fund for the Rule of Law.
  • Invest in UK democracy building capacity through a new Open Societies Fund, which could be delivered by a consortium of British NGOs and organisations (Team UK).
  • Ensuring the UK has clear commitments to show leadership at the Summit for Democracy.


Adam Hug became the Director of the Foreign Policy Centre in November 2017, overseeing the FPC’s operations and strategic direction. He had previously been the Policy Director at the Foreign Policy Centre from 2008-2017. His research focuses on human rights and governance issues particularly in the former Soviet Union. He also writes on UK foreign policy and EU issues. He studied at Geography at the University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate and Development Studies with Special Reference to Central Asia as a post-grad.


Devin O’Shaughnessy is the Director of Strategy and Policy for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), responsible for advancing WFD’s strategic direction and providing technical leadership to its programmes and policy work. He has over 20 years’ experience in the field of international development, with expertise in democracy and governance, legislative assistance, civil society strengthening; electoral processes and observation; citizen participation; state building in fragile contexts; and inclusive politics. Before joining WFD, he worked for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for nearly six years in Washington, DC, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. He has a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


Image by Number 10 under (CC).

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