Britain’s Postelection Foreign Policy
from Europe Program, Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, and RealEcon

Britain’s Postelection Foreign Policy

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the June 2024 launch of his party’s manifesto.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the June 2024 launch of his party’s manifesto. Phil Noble/Reuters

While July 4 elections are likely to end with Labour beating the Conservatives, voters can expect closer ties with Europe and a stronger emphasis on defense regardless of who wins.

June 28, 2024 1:37 pm (EST)

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the June 2024 launch of his party’s manifesto.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the June 2024 launch of his party’s manifesto. Phil Noble/Reuters
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Whatever the outcome in the British elections on July 4, the good news is that the process itself commands the broad trust of the electorate. Money plays a far smaller role in politics in the United Kingdom (UK) than it does in the United States; deepfakes have been the dog that didn’t bark; TikTok and other social media platforms matter less than the balanced and professional news from the BBC. Amid the troubling global rise of populism, British politics seems reassuringly stable.

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This outbreak of good sense extends to the debate on foreign policy. The Conservative Party, which has governed for the past fourteen years, and the Labour Party, the chief opposition force and July’s expected winner, offer reasonably similar and similarly reasonable election promises. Polling evidence suggests that the UK electorate is right behind them. Although the moderate consensus is challenged by the right-wing Reform Party, this insurgent group is projected to win only a small handful of seats in Parliament.

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Britannia is not always ruled by reason. At the last election, in 2019, the Conservatives campaigned on “getting Brexit done,” a reckless lurch into deglobalization that harmed links with important trading partners and undermined UK influence in Europe on an array of issues, including migration policy and how to respond to alleged Chinese dumping. The Labour Party, for its part, was in the grip of the leftist Jeremy Corbyn: a semi-closeted Brexiter and an open opponent of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Trade Rapprochement With Europe?

To see how far Britain has come, start with the question of Europe. In the 2016 referendum, 52 percent of voters backed Brexit. Today, only 31 percent of Britons polled by research firm YouGov say it was right to leave the European Union (EU), while 55 percent say it was an error. A 2023 survey conducted by the British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG) found that 61 percent of respondents supported lowering trade barriers with the EU. Remarkably, 58 percent of respondents who voted for Brexit seven years before now said they wanted lower barriers.

Accordingly, both main parties have become more pro-Europe than they were at the last election. While it would be impractical for Britain to try to rejoin the EU—the Europeans would, unsurprisingly, impose punitive conditions—the Conservatives now favor closer cooperation on defense, scientific research and innovation, and trade with Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Labour has defenestrated Corbyn and is now led by the pro-European Keir Starmer. If elected, Labour will seek to deepen cooperation with Brussels without ever mentioning the B-word.

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NATO’s Embrace

Thanks to the war in Ukraine, British attitudes toward defense are similarly realistic. Support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is up, from 67 percent in one BFPG poll in 2021 to 78 percent in a follow-up survey last year. In contrast, the 2023 survey showed that just 9 percent of respondents opposed NATO membership. A different polling group, Pew Research Center, finds that support for NATO in Britain is higher than in other member states, bar Poland and the Netherlands. Further, the salience of defense has increased. Before the 2019 election, about 9 percent of voters listed defense and security among the top three electoral issues, according to YouGov. Today, that share has doubled—though foreign policy still preoccupies voters much less than the economy and the state of public services do.

In keeping with the national mood, the ruling Conservative Party has sought to capitalize on its reputation for being strong on defense. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak opened his campaign by floating a patriotic plan to bring back national service and followed that with a proposal to boost military spending to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030. Paradoxically, the political popularity of defense and alliances was underscored by Sunak’s lowest point in the campaign. When the prime minister made an early exit from the commemoration ceremonies on the eightieth anniversary of D-Day, he was greeted with a national uproar.

More on:

United Kingdom

Elections and Voting

Defense and Security

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The Labour Party has tried to burnish its own defense credentials. In contrast to his predecessor, Corbyn, Starmer has promised to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He has also promised a strategic defense review; talked up the possibility of a UK-EU defense pact; and endorsed the defense-spending target of 2.5 percent of GDP, although he has not set a date for reaching it. His enthusiasm for the 2.5 percent target should not be a surprise. The 2023 BFPG poll indicated that 59 percent of Britons support it.

Britain’s outlook—pro-NATO, pro-defense, pro-Ukraine, and, at least, not anti-European—forms a promising basis for the next government’s foreign policy. Polling also reveals realism about China’s disturbing authoritarian turn: BFPG found that 74 percent of respondents distrust the country. Less encouragingly, Britons hesitate to say that the United States is clearly better. In spring 2023, when the U.S. election process was still in its earliest stages, Pew Research Center asked people in multiple countries whether they saw China or the United States more favorably. Fully 50 percent of Britons said they could not see a difference, although more respondents trusted the United States more than they did China.

Unfortunately, none of this ensures that Britain will rise to meet its global challenges. The country is mired in low growth, a large public-debt burden, and overwhelming pressure to invest more in public services, notably care for the elderly and the National Health System. Under these conditions, there is little appetite to restore Britain’s foreign-assistance budget to 0.7 percent of GDP, the generous size that it had attained prior to the 2008 financial crisis.

Meanwhile, the list of foreign policy challenges is long. China’s flood of cheap exports, notably of electric vehicles, threatens the viability of British car plants that have already suffered supply-chain disruptions as a result of Brexit. Russia’s war in Ukraine carries an implicit threat of further Russian military action against the three Baltic states, which Britain would be obliged to help because of its membership in NATO. And the United States is becoming a less dependable ally, as the delays in its support for Ukraine have illustrated. All of this while climate change and conflict are fueling migration into rich nations. The next British government faces a daunting foreign policy agenda.

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