Mentioned on the Podcast
Charles A. Kupman and Leslie Vinjamuri, eds., Anchoring the World: International Order in the Twenty-First Century
Leslie Vinjamuri, “How Brexit and Boris Broke Britain,” Foreign Affairs
The Government of the United Kingdom Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy
Jim Lindsay: (00:03)
Welcome to the President's Inbox, the CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Britain after Queen Elizabeth. With me to discuss Britain's future with a new Monarch and a new Prime Minister is Leslie Vinjamuri. Leslie is the Director of the US and America's Programme, and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham House. She has written widely and well on America's role in the world, U.S.-U.K. and European relations, and the future of the international order. She is co-editor with Charles Kupchan of Anchoring the World, and she had a piece in foreign affairs last month titled, "How Brexit and Boris Broke Britain". Leslie, thanks for the alliterative title and for joining me.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (01:00)
Thank you, Jim. It's great to be here. What a day it is.
Jim Lindsay: (01:03)
Certainly is and let's begin with the passing of Queen Elizabeth. She reigned over the United Kingdom for 70 years, one of the longest reigns in world history. How was the news of her passing greeted in Britain?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (01:15)
I think with tremendous sadness. People, of course, are well aware of her age. Everybody knew it was coming. Those who had worked in the civil service and rehearsed and planned for her funeral for years, but it was an extraordinary moment. The sense of uncertainty, of deep sadness, the awe of it. It was hard to overstate. It's really a phenomenal moment and still very, very difficult one. Comes at a time of much broader uncertainty, and I think Queen Elizabeth had always been that person, that presence, that signaled deep stability and moral certitude for the U.K., but I think especially in the last six years since the referendum.
Jim Lindsay: (02:00)
Tell me a little bit more about that, Leslie, because I think for most Americans, what you know of the British royal family or of the Queen comes from cover shots on news tabloids that you check out at the supermarket. Can you tell us just a little bit more about how the Queen resonates or connected with people in Britain and elsewhere?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (02:19)
I think the most extraordinary thing, our new director at Chatham House, Bronwen Maddox tweeted, "There are some people that's saying that the Queen had met up to one third of Britain's people." For a country that's around what, 65 million, that's extraordinary. And so I certainly felt it as an American, long time in London, just amazed at how present the Queen and, of course, the whole royal family are. If you work in the not-for-profit sector, they're a patron of many of the charities and they actively have a visible daily presence throughout the U.K. I think it's true. When I was living in the U.S., I saw the royal family and the Queen as a symbolic thing, but when your daily life is in London and across the U.K., the royal family really is part of the fabric. It's not something that's distant. It feels very present and that, I think, is why there's so many people on the streets and watching the funeral yesterday.
Jim Lindsay: (03:15)
What do you make of yesterday's funeral? Obviously, a great deal of tradition and history on display, but it was also remarkable how many world leaders came to London for the Queen's funeral, including President Joseph Biden. My understanding is that the passing of previous British dignitaries, previous British kings, American presidents, didn't make their way to London. But in this case, Joe Biden did.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (03:40)
Yeah, that's right. I just think this is a Queen who's been there longer than anybody. It's difficult to imagine a major world event since the end of the Second World War. She's been there since 1952. Every single moment, it's not that she's been driving it but she's been present, been visible, has met with most of the world leaders that will have attended, some of them on multiple occasions, has seen them through different phases of their own career while she has remained in one position. I think, just again, that sheer duration and the scale of her rule and the scale of change that's taken place while she had been Queen, it's very difficult still to imagine her not being there when it's going to take a while to talk about her in the past tense. I think the funeral, there's nothing like the British to bring together that kind of ceremony, which wasn't only about yesterday. It was really the days leading up to it. It was the funeral itself, it was the procession afterwards. The visibility of the nation really coming together and the four nations, I think, was a real emphasis throughout-
Jim Lindsay: (04:48)
By four nations, you mean England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (04:52)
Exactly. I don't know here in America which coverage people were watching, but of course, I assume BBC World but we were all watching BBC. If you saw the images flashed across the screen of people gathering in Hyde Park, in Edinburgh and Northern Ireland and just watching collectively, it was a really collective experience. People on the streets in London queuing, people who weren't queuing walked the length of the queue. I walked the length of the queue just to really come together. And I think it was that unity which was so palpable, and which she always tried to instill in the country. I think one of the things that Brits always identify with the Queen is that speech that she gives on Christmas Day. It's almost like religion. Everybody would stop what they were doing and watch the Queen give her speech to the country.
Jim Lindsay: (05:38)
I should just be clear. When you say queue, you mean a line. Queue, here in the United States, certainly, given recent events, has a whole different connotation.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (05:48)
That's right. Queue is a line and it's a British art. Standing in a queue, it's very much a British art and one that has very clear rules and you don't violate them. And it was run like that. The wristbands, the color of the wristbands changed each day. They went on to ensure that people weren't hopping in and hopping out, but they did make some exceptions. My parents-in-law stood in the queue and people who are older, who are clearly very deeply committed, I think they moved them through a little bit more quickly. There was a stability to the entire thing.
Jim Lindsay: (06:16)
The funeral itself was obviously a personal moment for the Queen's family. It was a national moment for the people of the United Kingdom. It was a historical moment because of the lineage that she represents, but it was also a political or diplomatic moment, and I noted that a number of world leaders showed up, but one world leader who wasn't invited was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian Foreign Ministry put out a press statement calling the decision not to invite Putin as deeply immoral. Any reactions in Britain to the Russian position?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (06:54)
None. The most extraordinary thing, and remember, the Queen was there to stand above politics. The Queen was there to unite, to not be partisan, to really represent the state and the thing that she did incredibly well, given of course that this was a woman, a queen, who met these leaders, who traveled to receive, to held so many ceremonies at Buckingham Palace and elsewhere, but she always remained above politics. I think the thing that was extraordinary yesterday was that it really was not a political day. It was really a ceremonial day. It was a day of a nation mourning its beloved leader. That's what it was, and so you didn't really get the conversation about, some people talked about the fact that President Biden was sitting at the back because he didn't come on the coach, he came in a car, but I think that it was important that somebody like Putin wasn't there. Can you imagine the divisiveness that would have injected into something that was really meant to be singularly focused on what it actually was?
Jim Lindsay: (07:58)
Well Leslie, obviously with the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles is elevated, becomes King Charles, King Charles III. What is the public reaction to King Charles? How is he viewed?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (08:10)
Well, it's been a long time coming. In views of Charles, King Charles, have changed dramatically from the moment surrounding Diana's death were, of course, the failure of their marriage. His relationship with Camilla cast such a shadow over Charles. He was often in the shadow of his mother, the Queen, in the shadow of his wife, when she was his wife, Lady Diana, who was so loved by the people. But that really changed over time. I think that people saw a man, a prince, now a king, who stayed the course, who was there, who endured the difficulties that he had personally. Attitudes about Camilla have changed and I think when he spoke again after his mother's death, that there was a real outpouring of goodwill for him. I think at the moment, especially after the last ten days, it's been a very marked. Really, I can't stress enough. It wasn't just yesterday, it's been 10 days where there's a sense that the entire nation stood still in pause. There were no deep politics and during that time, we've seen the new king travel the nation, speak to the people, meet with the people on the street. At the moment, the attitude towards King Charles, towards the monarchy, I think is very strong. That's obviously very specific moment. The polls suggest, YouGov has done polls that suggests that older people are much more supportive of the monarchy than younger people are. The same applies to King Charles, but I think there's some potentially some very difficult times ahead and there's also the real question of whether he's going to now stand back from some of the things he cares about most, like climate and the environment and play the role that the Queen did or whether he's going to take more of a stand on those very pressing global challenges.
Jim Lindsay: (10:01)
On that point, Leslie, is there any sense as to what King Charles's monarchy will look like? You've impressed upon us that the Queen was the embodiment of the nation. She stood above politics. Is that role sustainable for Charles? Has he indicated that he may go in a different direction and try to reinvent the monarchy?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (10:21)
I think many people see him perhaps as a transitional monarch. He's not a young person. He's already 75. He won't come anywhere close to what his mother had, the 70 years where she went from being a young woman to a very much not a young woman. He's coming in a certain age, at a certain stage of life. The focus is really on William and Kate. There is in one sense, he's transition from one generation to the next. We don't know how long that transition will last. There are lots of questions about whether he will try to modernize the monarchy in a series of small ways, whether he'll give different roles to members of the family. I think that a series of small changes are certainly possible and plausible, but I think the other thing to really note about the monarchy is I did say that the Queen stood above it all, but the Queen at some level in the royal family, they're also part of the infrastructure of the state. The symbolism of the monarchy and the royal family, it's embedded in everyday life, little things. I was having dinner with a friend who is a Queen's Counsel, a barrister, and the moment the Queen passed, he's suddenly a King's Counsel. All of those signages change and really, it does affect. You suddenly wake up and you realize that you're in a country that has a King. It has a very different feeling. I do think that the gender question is significant. It's one that it will be difficult to measure or assess, but I think it was only when the Queen died that many of us realized that there was something very significant about having a woman and having a queen.
Jim Lindsay: (11:55)
Well, the queen certainly took her responsibilities very seriously. She was working out until her death. Just two days before she passed, she appointed Liz Truss as the new Prime Minister. Let's talk a bit about Prime Minister Truss, who is she?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (12:12)
Who is she? She's a fiercely determined is Prime Minister now who's been committed to politics, been politically engaged for quite some time in one form or another, who famously people like to talk about now. The video clip of her speaking as a young woman, I think it was a school debate or some such, saying that she didn't really believe in the monarchy. It was nothing personal, but she didn't believe in the idea. Of course, that's gone viral in one sense but she staked her claim now on being on taking forward some parts of Boris's agenda, really putting forward the vision of an independent global Britain. She's very committed to a conservative philosophy of economics. She's big on tax cuts as a mechanism for growing the economy, something that people are deeply suspicious about. She's got a hint of the populist, she likes the comparisons that people make to Maggie Thatcher but the thing we have to just keep reminding all of your listeners is this was an election that was very limited to members of the Conservative Party. She won about 81,000 votes in a country that has around 65 million people. Only a tiny number of people made the decision about her appointment as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Jim Lindsay: (13:35)
Tell me how she won that race, Leslie, because again, it was an interesting process. She was up in a process that eventually winnowed the numerous candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and hence, Prime Minister down to two and she was running against Rishi Sunak, who had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer and it was his resignation that pushed out or led to the events that culminated in Boris Johnson resigning as the head of the party and eventually, as Prime Minister. Mr. Sunak, as I understood it, did much better than now Prime Minister Truss in terms of the balloting among members of the House of Commons. Yet, she apparently won relatively easily when it went to the broader vote among Conservative Party members. Why?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (14:19)
She did. The margins weren't as big as many people thought they would be. They were around what, 20,000 votes? These are tiny numbers. This is the thing that I think one has to... If you compare it to a U.S. presidential election, yes, we work through the Electoral College but the numbers, 81 thousand, 81 million. There's just no comparison, even the different sizes of our countries. I think it's very difficult to discern but there were all sorts of biases, perhaps amongst the larger Conservative Party membership against Rishi Sunak. Certainly, the fact that Boris Johnson is so popular and Rishi Sunak had been, as you just said, the person that resigned and helped drive for his downfall as Prime Minister. I think there are questions. Rishi Sunak is very wealthy, that doesn't always go down very well, certainly not in the current moment where there's a real discourse of populism and everyday people. The fact that Rishi Sunak is a very wealthy man who was educated at Stanford, none of those things, I think, necessarily played to his advantage. Liz Truss, I guess, with the broader electorate, I don't think she was phenomenally popular either. It's a choice of alternatives due to different politicking within the party. Different candidates were peeled away. You end up with not necessarily an obvious choice, but most of the polling did suggest that she was going to win this, but again, the margins were much, much smaller than people thought they might be.
Jim Lindsay: (15:47)
You've already mentioned some of the things that she wants to do and we're going to get into that a bit more, but maybe you should walk us through what it is that she's inheriting. Where is Britain today, and again, I'll go back to your great Foreign Affairs piece. Again, the title is, "How Brexit and Boris Broke Britain". That's a pretty strong formulation. How is Britain broke?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (16:10)
First of all, the brilliance of your editors. Authors never choose titles at Foreign Affairs. The brilliance of your editors, I will confess I was mildly concerned about the title, though it's a good title.
Jim Lindsay: (16:21)
It's a great title.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (16:23)
It's a great title. It's a great title, but I do have some reason to believe that Britain will come through but it's going to be a tough, tough road ahead. After that fatal referendum, many of us saw as fatal because, of course I, like so many others, were hoping that it would go the other way.
Jim Lindsay: (16:37)
By referendum, you mean Brexit?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (16:39)
The Brexit referendum. There were choices to be made and the big choice was, what does Brexit mean? The referendum was a really short, simple question that told people basically nothing about what Britain's relationship with Europe would be if it left the European Union. And Boris Johnson is really the person that drove through and created the popular sentiment behind having a very, very tough Brexit and Liz Tress has gotten on board that vision. She was very close to the former Prime Minister, his Foreign Secretary most recently.
Jim Lindsay: (17:12)
But she wasn't there originally. Originally, she was part of the remainer camp, correct?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (17:16)
Yes. But remember, that there was a day when Boris Johnson was part of the remainer camp. There's a lot of sense right now that we have-
Jim Lindsay: (17:23)
Her views evolved.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (17:25)
That is instrumental. That's been instrumental and motivated by some very personal political considerations. I think that she's inherited a Britain that she helped to create, which is a Britain that's tried to execute on an agenda which is about a very independent Britain with a very hard Brexit that's playing to a very small base within the Conservative Party, that has a particular vision of Britain, that quite frankly, is going to be difficult to sustain economically and probably politically also. She's inheriting a country that is facing very low predicted rates of growth, that has very high inflation and that's in a very, very difficult economic position pretty much in the round, where growth is something that she's really going to focus on and she's adopted an economic strategy, and this is what we saw throughout the campaign. That was all about tax cuts. In fact, Rishi Sunak was the only person that initially kept saying, "We can't cut taxes. We actually need to keep taxes high and potentially raise them by the end of it." He'd given up on that line because it was so politically unsustainable. She's inherited a country, that's the number one issue is clearly going to be the economy. She's got a very ideological view on what you do about the economy. She's making appointments that reflect that, she's firing people in ways that reflect that. And if you put that together with a sense that the hard Brexit view, combined with the vision of a global Britain, which is what she's inherited and what she's also very much behind, that's a really tall measure. What are the two things that she's going to have to work out in addition to the economy? The big one is what is the relationship with Europe going to look like? And this is something that has been on top of the agenda since that referendum and nobody has really managed to solve. And the second one is, what is Britain's relationship with the United States, which of course has been difficult.
Jim Lindsay: (19:26)
Can you explain to us what Liz Truss means and Conservative Party members mean when they say, "Global Britain"? Is it anything more than a slogan?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (19:36)
Nobody's really quite sure what it means. To be honest, I think it is a slogan. We saw the release of the Integrated Review during the pandemic, which was a very serious strategy document written by John Bew and others in the Cabinet Office under Boris Johnson's leadership, which did try to stake out what a foreign policy would look like. That shone a spotlight on this vision of Global Britain, and it meant things like doubling down on your Atlantic security, but also... And the thing that, I think, got so much attention in the press was that tilt to the Indo-Pacific, which of course is the global piece. Increasing defense spending, Liz Truss wants to do a lot more of that. I think a Global Britain, it was a slogan that seems to be now being staked out as being independent with strong partnerships, focusing much more on security even at the global level, not really conceiving of Britain as a middle power. Seeing it as a major player, as a serious driver of international strategy and security questions, and not being primarily about soft power. I think for many people, that's been the disheartening part, the cuts to the development budget, the downgrading of the independence of what was DFID, the merger with the FCO. We have the development part of Britain, which used to be cabinet level agency and having it merged with the Foreign Office, that was an intense battle, but it was, I think, part of that vision of creating a strategy where everything lined up behind the security vision and the security vision was one in which the U.K. was meant to be out front and center defining not really as junior partner to the United States, but really as a leader. In fact, the strategy looks like it's a bit of a junior partner to the U.S., but I think that what Boris wanted, what Liz Truss most definitely wants is not to be seen as being obsequious when it comes... Or sycophantic or subservient in the way that Theresa May was really seen to be when she made that fatal trip to visit President Trump.
Jim Lindsay: (21:39)
Let's talk then about Britain's relations with the European Union. My sense is they're not terribly good, you have the whole question of how to make Brexit work and the issue of Northern Ireland and where the line gets drawn, whether it's the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or in the middle of the Irish Sea. Any potential movement on that front under Prime Minister Truss?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (22:03)
She's going to have to deal with this. There is the Northern Ireland bill that's been proposed that is supposed to be going through Parliament. It will undoubtedly generate more tension and pushback from the EU. She hasn't put a great step forward initially. We remember the moment between she and Macron where she said she refused to commit to the idea that France was an important partner for the U.K. I think that question of the relationship with Northern Ireland is going to continue to haunt Liz Truss and her leadership. She's going to try and I think push through this bill where you get a green lane and a red lane, right? Where you can differentiate between goods that are going from the mainland, so to speak, to Northern Ireland and staying there, and so therefore shouldn't have to be checked and those that are not staying. They're going through to Ireland and that becomes a different equation. It's a very complicated vision. There are certainly arguments for it, but it's unlikely to go down well with Europe. This is where, I think, we all know. If she can't sort that out, it's just going to continue to create tension in that relationship between her and her government, and the United Kingdom on the one hand and the United States. I think she will tackle it, but that is certainly the area in which there is the greatest uncertainty. It also has some really negative spillover effects. The EU is going to have to decide what cards to play, what pressure points to push and at a moment where there's been some signs of increased security and cooperation between the U.K. and the EU, just getting in the same room and talking about Ukraine and talking about NATO, that's something where the U.K. has a vested interest in being in those conversations. It's been outside of too many of them since Brexit and the whole thing goes together. You've got to get that relationship right, you've got to solve the Northern Ireland question. Not only, arguably most importantly for the Good Friday Agreement, for peace between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but really for that relationship that the U.K. has more broadly with the EU, at a time when the EU is becoming much more important security player.
Jim Lindsay: (24:16)
Liz, you get a chance to talk to a lot of European officials, a lot of people on the continent who write in this space. Do you get the sense that Britain really matters much to the leading countries in the European Union? I ask that because when I was on the continent this summer chatting with people, I was surprised how infrequently Britain came up in the conversations. It was almost as if once Britain initiated the divorce, much of Europe has forgotten about London.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (24:47)
There is a palpable sense, and I feel it just like you. I feel it when I go to Europe, but I also feel it when I come to the United States, how much less often the U.K. features as a major point of the conversation. Even when you go through online journals and magazines, there's a section for Europe. Sometimes, the U.K. is not quite clear where it fits anymore. There is a downgrading of attention. Part of that has been because Europe has had so much to contend with in deciding what it's going to do on all the big questions that have come to the surface during the war in Ukraine. The question of energy, question of security, of defense spending, all of those things that have really preoccupied and rightly so Europe, and Britain is just not part of that conversation. I think you're right that there's a sense of needing to have momentum, being at a moment of crisis, the stakes being tremendously high and it's a distraction. The U.K., this is the thing that just defies the imagination, that given how strong the U.K. has been on questions of foreign policy, security, defense, given how vital at this moment is, that there isn't clear decision to move past this moment to get a resolution on the big questions so that U.K. can be seen to be a really important player. I think that they know this. I think Liz Truss knows this. She has gotten on that plane immediately and gotten over to New York for the UNGA meetings. But politically, whether she can really make that happen remains to be seen.
Jim Lindsay: (26:20)
Where do you see U.S.-U.K. relations going? Do you think the Biden administration is going to be drawn by inevitable dynamics to downplay the aid and support that the United Kingdom can give in any issue?
Leslie Vinjamuri: (26:35)
It's a very strong relationship. It's got deep legs and many of them, it's a historic multidimensional, multifaceted relationship that I think we should never understate the importance of that, whether it's on education, science, intelligence, defense, security, human rights, any number of issues. I wouldn't want to pretend that it's going to wither away. But at the same time, the U.K.'s got to be seen to be important and relevant. And part of its relevance, as we all know, has always being at the table in Europe and helping the U.S. figure out how to deal with the Europeans more effectively. And it can't play that role anymore so it's going to have to figure out what else to do, but at the same time in NATO, it's clearly the number one most important partner after the U.S. and if Liz Truss does what she says she wants to do, which is to increase defense spending to 3% of GDP by, I think, it's 2030, that's significant and that would make the U.K. a very important... It would sustain its role and increase its role as a very important partner to be reckoned with in Europe, if not, within the European Union. But it's going to get us to the table. It's not of to U.S. Trade and Technology Council that it has with the European Union. It's not clear how long or in what way its access to the EU meetings is going to be on security questions. It's really got to sort those things out to make itself relevant or it will start to get in the way of that relationship with the U.S.
Jim Lindsay: (28:07)
And it certainly doesn't seem the Biden administration is eager to pursue a U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement, which is one of the things that people who promoted Brexit leaving, argued that Britain would be freed up to do once it escaped the clutches of all the rules and regulations foisted upon it by Brussels.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (28:28)
Oh, Jim. It was the only thing that anybody ever wanted to talk about. Every single news media conversation was, "When will there be a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal?" Throughout Donald Trump's Presidency, it took up all the airspace and then suddenly it disappeared, and it disappeared when Biden was inaugurated. And I think it was an online Munich Security Conference, Boris Johnson made a very clear decision. We know this because we've talked to the people who helped him write his speech. He made a very clear decision in that speech that he wasn't going to talk about the free trade deal for the first time. And it was so noticeable because the only thing he talked about, and suddenly he's talking about standing up alongside the United States and increasing defense spending of Britain and all the rest of it. And from that moment on, it's really not been talked about. We saw Liz Truss admitted publicly today that it wasn't on the agenda that's got every headline in the United Kingdom today. It's a confession and it's something that we all knew, but nobody's really saying exactly like that. She's made the point, but I think that Brits, there's a sense in which not only Brits but the British Government blame that not really on Britain, they blame it on Congress and so what you always hear in the U.K. as well. Of course, there's not going to be a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal because Congress is deadlocked and America doesn't do free trade. You don't hear, "We're not going to have one because they don't really want to work with us." That's not the storyline, that's not the headline that you generally hear in the U.K.
Jim Lindsay: (29:59)
On that note, I'll close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Leslie Vinjamuri, Director of the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House. I encourage you to read her piece, "How Brexit and Boris Broke Britain". You can find it at foreignaffairs.com. Leslie, thanks for joining us. A delight to chat.
Leslie Vinjamuri: (30:19)
Thank you, Jim. It's been great to speak with you.
Jim Lindsay: (30:21)
Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen and leave us your review. We love the feedback. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely of those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Ester Fang, with the Senior Podcast Producer Gabrielle Sierra. Markus Zakaria and Ester Fang engineered this episode. Special thanks to Margaret Gach and Michelle Kurilla for their assistance. This is the last episode that Margaret is assisting me on. Margaret, thank you very much for all your contributions to The President's Inbox. This is Jim Lindsay, thanks for listening.
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