Britain’s Role in a Future World

William Hague at the ISF

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

William Hague, Baron Hague of Richmond, former Conservative Party Leader and Foreign Secretary, as well as former Leader of the House of Commons, was in the neighbourhood the other week and the Institute of Social Futures got him to agree to an early-morning sit-down natter. I attended as the sole representative for the jeans and t-shirt party. The event began with a brief monologue by Hague, and then the floor was opened to questions on any relevant topic.

In his introduction, Hague stated that we live in strange times. It’s time to be officially worried about what’s going on in the world yet, at the same time, this is empirically the best time to be alive in the history of civilisation—the Pinker paradox. This contradiction did not concern Hague overly much, as he suggested that it was perfectly possible to have positive trends alongside general instability in the world. Particularly concerning of late, thought Hague, especially in light of the recent Trump–Putin summit, was the framenting nature of the Western alliance, and the fact that such fragmenting makes things easier for the few totalitarian states left in the digital world. Between Lessig, Schmidt and Cohen there are some pretty compelling arguments for digital enabling of totalitarianism, but I’ll leave those aside for now.

Hague moved onto Brexit and his own derision-earning flip-flop from Leave on the eve of the referendum. He clarified that whilst he was no fan of the EU and its crazy ideas, he opposed Brexit at the eleventh hour out of the belief that it would be such a preoccupation and diversion to think about rather than other, more important problems. I must confess, it was not the most convincing argument I’ve heard for Remain.

After that it was onto the Iranian nuclear deal, which Hague had been heavily involved with arranging. Only a few short years ago, he lamented, we had such an international consensus and were working closely with both China and Russia, and he wouldn’t have believed when signing it that, years later, the US would be the ones trying to rip it up, nor would he have forsee[n] the current Foreign Secretary sitting with the Iranian Foreign Minister to discuss the threat posed by US foreign policy.

Hague spent much more time on Africa than [he] had expected to, and so the conversation switched continents. It was here, through the example of the truly failed state of Somalia, that Hague elaborated on his view of Britain’s position in the world, as one of the few countries with the influence to organise other countries, along with bodies like the EU and the UN, to fund a naval force and to raise and pay an African military force. Hague’s Britain, therefore, is a country that can assemble all those parts, and this sets it apart. Somalia is by no means fixed, he stressed to add, but it is improving. Western countries, Hague suggested, need to more of that kind of intervention, rather than the Iraq or Afghanistan kind.

The floor was now opened to questions from the 20 or so assembled academics. The first responded directly to Hague’s account of Britain’s unique power, asking whether in a future world, can Britain still do that? Hague thought that it had bloody better do. Brazil and India were the future of such interventionism—I noticed he missed the Russia and the China from the BRIC countries, whose current interventionism is presumably less to his liking—but they remain decades away from viewing themselves as having the same sense of global responsibility. Just as I was beginning to think that global responsibility might be Hague’s preferred term for what, if I were to be cynical, sounds suspiciously like a repackaged white man’s burden, he declared that despite what he was saying, we’re not the Empire any more. So I guess that’s okay, then.

Staying in Africa, a question was asked about the recent Ebola outbreaks and how best we can help Africa to develop the medical and social infrastructure to better combat such things. Hague believed that more effective internal mechanisms for dealing with these issues were a priority, having concluded from his experiences with the WHO that it was a seriously disappointing institution. As one of the small number of countries that can move the dial, Britain should focus on building up the capacities of the WHO and the African countries.

The third question revolved around the until-recently-widely-held belief that the prevalence of the international rule of law was the conclusion of the common sense of global politics, but now seemed to be more of a high watermark. The question-asker wanted to know where the rule of law as a global norm was going post-Hungary, post-Poland and post-Trump, and whether we were sliding back to a war of all against all and the primacy of force. Hague, however, thought that whilst we were sliding back, things were moving back and forth in different areas of the globe, with many recent events—the Malaysian elections, the ousting of Zuma in South Africa—showing that the rule of law was not beaten yet. As for the reasons why we were slipping back elsewhere, Hague placed the greatest share of the blame on China’s doorstep. Provocative acts like ignoring rulings on the Philippines’ access to the South China Sea and their belief (borne out by all evidence thusfar) that force will eventually wear down the likes of Taiwan with little outside protest, belie their Sun Tzu-influenced approach to conflict—to succeed without fighting.

As for European politics, Hague thought the biggest influencing factor to be the population of Africa and the Middle East—expected to double in the next 30 years and the only regions in which the population growth is not slowing down—and its driving of nationalism and populism in the face of mass immigration. This, in turn, was leading to the fragmenting of Europe and would soon likely spell the end of the Schengen Area. This, Hague allowed, might well produce an EU that we’d have been happier to stay in.

A question on the nature of the UK’s role or duty to intervene in fragile states in the process of fragmenting led Hague onto the modern Left. He recounted the story of attending a commemoration event for the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the chorus of never agains, but stated that those same people would be leading the raging debate over intervention in the next conflict. According to Hague, something strange has happened to the Left. Where Hague seemed to approve of Blair’s interventionism, Labour under Corbyn was now vehemently opposed to any such actions. People always ask if the government has an exit plan when they go into a situation like that, but the answer is no, not really, you only have a couple days to plan how you’re getting in in the first place, and meanwhile the tanks are moving on Bengazi and we need to do something, said Hague of the ever-so-successful intervention in Libya which is by all accounts now a stable and wonderful place to be, which didn’t exactly convince me of the merits of blundering into points of geopolitical turmoil.

Another question asked whether Hague saw in his successor as Foreign Secretary an attempt to fit into a world caught under the ascendancy of strong man politics and the undermining of democratic institutions. Which one? replied Hague. Assuming Boris (who by this point was Foreign Secretary no more) was meant, he suggested that it was not that sinister, merely the needs of making a trade deal with a pro-Brexit US administration. British politics, opined Hague, was still wonderfully irreverent. Britain could never have had a Hitler, because we’d have made such fun of him. On the causes of these twin evils of modern politics, Hague suggested that it may be a case of a more complex world, which leads people to seek simpler answers. Trump, in Hague’s estimation, is in thrall to strong men, and weak in the face of them, showing that he isn’t one. Even in the face of Kim Jong-Un, the archetypal weak strong man, Trump makes concessions.

Next came a question about which posed the greater threat to the current world order: China or Russia. Hague suggested that it was a matter of timescale. In the short term, Russia and their embrace of hybrid/ambiguous warfare was the greater threat. Hague suggested that, in the face of these means of invading a country without announcing it, NATO needs an Article 5B to detail the response to anything less than an armed attack, but still hostile. In 30 years’ time, hover, Hague considered China the greater threat due to their technological capabilities—whoever is in the lead on AI between China and the US will be as important as who was in the lead with the atomic bomb in the 1940s.

At this point, the host declared that only questions from female attendees would be taken going forward. Sure enough, I realised that every question-asker had thusfar been male, along with all of the hands raised, despite the six or so women present. Surely, I thought, that just means they don’t yet have any questions. This turned out not to be the case, and I am baffled as to why none of the women present—all of whom were presumably informed and interested enough about politics to be listening to William Hague at 9 in the morning—deigned to ask their questions until they were granted the exclusive use of the floor. What was their plan in the event that the host didn’t decide to block male questions? Anyway, now that the women had been granted the permission that they apparently required to ask questions, the first asked Hague whether he thought the North is coming back. Hague, Yorkshire-born, stated that it is hard to generalise abut the North because it’s so varied, but that the North still has all manner of attractions that people in London seem strangely unaware of.

The next question asked whether Brexit might lead to the breakup of the EU and its reformation—in short, did Hague think that others would follow our stellar lead? Hague thought that the EU as an institution was safe, but Europe as a body might not be, as evidenced by the rise of the far-right even in liberal, generous, egalitarian Scandinavia. Between migration-related tensions and the limbo in which the Euro currently finds itself—the only monetary union without a political union&mash;the EU was being pulled apart primarily in terms of not being able to respond to the next crisis coherently. Britain, meanwhile, can success in or out, but not if we don’t know what we’re doing (so it looks like we’re fucked).

Another question was asked about the UK’s unusual devolved structure, and the future of it. Did Hague think that the UK might break up in the near future? He did not. Scotland’s overtures towards independence were far from over, but the Scottish Nationalists will remain on the back foot for the foreseeable future. This, thought Hague, was a result of the EU’s refusal to deal with any part of the UK independently from the UK as a whole. Wales, meanwhile, is currently more centralised and less independently-minded than Scotland or Ireland, and poses no real threat of secession. And with that last jab at the Welsh (for they deserve no end of jabs), our chat came to an end.

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