The UK moves into a tougher new world

The UK moves into a tougher new world

The United Kingdom is on the move. From the "Brexit" referendum result more than five years ago to the recent launch of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (Aukus) trilateral security partnership, it is unmistakeable that the post-World War II rules-based liberal international order is coming under increasing strain. As the global order unravels, the UK is facing a brave new world that requires calling up its inner strength in ways not seen since its finest battle against tyranny and aggression some 80 years ago. And there are reasons to think the UK will do better than its critics and detractors suggest.

For visitors on the ground who have travelled to this former imperial island for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic and for the first time since the final implementation of Brexit after having acceded to the European Community (later European Union) in 1973, the earlier doomsday predictions seem off the mark. While questions abound about how the UK will fare without the EU, it might be possible that this speculation will be reversed to look at how the EU will do without the UK in the longer term.

The Aukus agreement, underscored by UK and US technology-sharing to enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, is a case in point. The trilateral agreement undercut France's sales of conventional submarines to Australia. Paris is understandably livid at what it sees as betrayal and backstabbing by its longstanding allies. While arming Australia with nuclear capabilities also has naturally infuriated China, the agreement would not have taken place in this trilateral mix without Brexit.

Brexit also has shown the strength of the UK's institutions. In June 2016, with a nearly 72% voter turnout, the overall majority of 17,410,742 Britons, or 51.89%, opted out of the EU. With much controversy, there was talk of another referendum and other attempts to reverse the outcome. But it stood. Brexit is finished. The UK is out.

In many other countries, where minority rights can usurp majority rule because powerful elites at the top have vested interests in doing so, the situation could easily have turned the other way. Thailand, for example, has seen electoral outcomes from the majority of voters overturned by the military and judiciary time and again over the past two decades. But in the UK, elites do exist but elected politicians come and go because core institutions, such as parliament, political parties and an independent judiciary and media, carry the day.

Other UK institutions that are immeasurably impactful by imparting knowledge lie in the country's education system. It is striking that countless young people the world over want to study in the UK at all levels. Education is an enormous and endless source of soft power, its projection and manifestation. UK authorities should realise this in a more enlightened fashion by allowing a more efficient consular regime. Outsourcing its visa application process to a private operator has ended up delaying and disrupting student candidates unnecessarily, especially when they intend only to spend considerable sums of money attaining a British education which will only make the UK stand in good stead among future professionals, bureaucrats and leaders of myriad countries.

This year, for example, Thai student candidates were kept in suspense and anxiety over visa approvals, disruptions and higher expenses, not yet taking into account costly quarantine requirement. Now charting its own post-Brexit path, it behoves the UK to streamline and smoothen student entry requirements. Getting future world leaders to be educated on it shores is a secret weapon for any major power. It is even worth internalising visa work by making it all in-house again and beefing up consular affairs to do so.

Apart from Aukus and global education, post-Brexit UK has been making marks in sporting institutions. Great Britain -- England, Scotland and Wales along with athletes from Northern Ireland (who have a choice of competing for Britain or Ireland) -- earned 4th place in the latest Olympics medal rankings, ahead of France and sports powerhouses with bigger populations, such as Russia and Germany. With a population of 68 million compared to Thailand's 70 million, according to Worldometer data from the UN, the UK has managed to produce a teenage female champion at the recent US Open tennis tournament. Apart from universities and athletes, famous artists and chefs, singers and scientists, and a wide and deep assortment of human talents abound in the UK.

When it comes to Covid-19, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is second to none. Thanks to its indigenous vaccine, which many countries around the world are using (Thailand included), two thirds of the UK population are fully vaccinated, as total deaths have petered out and severe cases have fallen dramatically. This shows the two-shot AstraZeneca deal has proved as effective as any other, including Pfizer and Moderna. However, AstraZeneca jabs abroad are not yet approved in the UK. Countries that widely inoculate their people with AstraZeneca should be seeking approval from the World Health Organization to enable their citizens to travel more freely.

To be sure, leaving the EU will incur costs to the UK. Adverse knock-on effects on trade, investment, and the mobility of capital, goods and people are felt acutely. The ongoing shortage of lorry drivers in the UK is an anecdotal reminder of the erstwhile seamless enmeshment between the UK and the EU. Going forward, the UK could be downgraded from a continental country with EU membership to an island nation on its own. Scotland may later leave the UK as it -- along with Northern Ireland -- voted against Brexit. The UK could end up being a small country and a major power diminished in size.

Yet perhaps the innermost strength of the British people, apart from their institutions and ways of association, organisation and conduct, is their response to adversity. When the chips are down, the British have tended to rebut and respond with uncommon invention, grit and flair in comparison to other peoples of big nations. Break-ups are always hard, and there will continue to be much lament and criticism about the benefits of being integrated with continental Europe for nearly 50 years. But as global tensions rise and pandemic-afflicted realities emerge, the UK's majority of voters back in 2016 may have bitten the bullet of a tougher new world sooner and better than its peers.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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