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The Age of Multipolarity

Can Britain withstand the forces reshaping our world?

Lord Cameron put it aptly when he recently stated that,“The world has changed significantly since I first entered government, and we live in very unstable, uncertain, and dangerous times”. The Foreign Secretary captured the zeitgeist of chaos and change that has come to define this last decade. All but gone is the atmosphere of optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the introduction of Russia into the G8, and China into the World Trade Organisation. 

Of course, this century is nominally ‘dealing with’ its fair share of crises, from the U.S.’s failed War on Terror to the Financial Crash of 2008, the devastation that accompanied the Arab Spring, and the untold suffering in civil wars across the globe. The difference now is that the world is hurtling down a path of ever-increasing instability; the Doomsday Clock now stands 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.

We have returned to an age of Great Power conflicts. Beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the explosion of proxy conflicts in the Middle East, a general contagion of coups and populism has swept across the globe, extinguishing faint flickers of democracy and threatening its bastions. It would have seemed unfathomable just a decade ago to say that the United States had suffered an insurrection at the Capitol, directed by a President unwilling to relinquish power; further, that 147 lawmakers would object to the election results, and that 40% of Americans believe the election was ‘stolen’. Has the U.S. really entered into a Post Truth Age of “alternative facts”? Similar questions might well be asked soon of Europe, with the Far-Right sweeping across Italy and Germany. Just this month, the second most popular party in Germany, the AFD, was implicated in a neo-Nazi meeting which was plotting the mass deportation of asylum seekers and non-native German citizens. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

According to Freedom House, global freedom has declined for the 17th consecutive year. Since 2020, the term la ceinture de coups d’État has arisen to describe the unbroken chain of African countries from the Atlantic to the Red Sea that have fallen to various coups. As French influence is effectively forced out of the social-political structures of West Africa, there is an opposite movement towards consolidating Chinese influence, especially economically through the Belt and Road Initiative, which waives pressure to adhere to democratic principles that would accompany modern Western investment. Autocratic influence seems also to extend militarily, with the U.S. accusing Russian mercenaries of plugging the military gap left by withdrawing French forces in the Sahel. 

The West has been forced to recognise that nations in the Global South are no longer prepared to work as junior partners, and rightly so. Many nations are beginning to flex their muscles after a century of subjugation. For example, much to the ire of the Americans, it was China who brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2023. Indeed, one just has to look at the latest additions to the BRICS organisation to appreciate that alternative power structures are being constructed to offer a counterweight to what used to be considered the world’s sole “superpower”. The argument in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is that the “final form of human government” is the “universalization of Western liberal democracy” continues to be undermined. While in 1989, the U.S.’s worldview seemed ascendant, in 2024, the West is beginning to reckon with the realities of a multi-polar world, and democracies are at risk from both forces outside and within. 

There are thus major questions for the U.K., which in foreign policy circles is said to merely “see what the Americans are doing and then do a little less”. Indeed, it was Blair who followed Bush into Iraq, and now it is Sunak who has followed Biden into launching airstrikes on the Houthis in Yemen. With global shipping routes under attack, the U.K. will need to shore up its fractured relationship with Europe, lest Trump follows through on his threat to either pull the U.S. out of NATO or, at the very least, undermine the organisation, if he is to be re-elected. At the very least, moments such as Liz truss’ fever-dream quip on President Macron (that ‘the jury was still out’ on whether he was a friend or foe) seem to be rarer under Sunak’s premiership. 

In the age of an ascendant China, a revanchist Russia, and regional actors such as Iran and North Korea threatening to undo the U.S.-led order from which Britain has thus far benefited, what can the U.K. do to protect itself from the erosion of democratic practices that has infected its neighbours and allies?

Although it has long been touted as an outlier when it comes to the political representation of extremist parties (purportedly thanks to its first-past-the-post system), the U.K. has nevertheless been subjected to the very same populist pressures as other countries, and has also seen its unique democratic norms challenged.

Since David Cameron, who himself resigned, we have not had a prime minister successfully serve a full term in office. In the last two years, we have had three prime ministers without a general election. One only needs to cast their mind back to former Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis’s ill-fated statement in 2020 that the U.K. would only break international law “in a very specific and limited way” to appreciate the U.K.’s democratic vulnerability. Indeed, back in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Boris Johnson had unlawfully prorogued parliament. Furthermore, in 2023 the privileges committee found that Johnson had committed the cardinal sin of ‘deliberately misleading parliament’. We are a country based on what Peter Hennessy coined the “good chaps” theory of government – we trust that our elected officials will act within the conventions, and when they don’t, the system cracks. 

The latest Rwanda Plan saga lays bare the peculiar fragility of our system. Once unthinkable, U.K. civil servants are now being instructed to ignore Rule 39 orders from the European Court of Human Rights.  Moreover, the government has pushed through specific legislation designed to bypass a Supreme Court ruling last November which blocked the planned deportation of asylum seekers to the African nation for processing. The Strasbourg Court has been branded a “foreign” court by the government, a not-so-subtle semantic shift from the more accurate “international” label which recognises that the U.K. is both a signatory and founding member. 

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick said in the House of Commons that, “the law is our servant, not our master”, a far cry from Magret Thatcher’s statement that, “The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe – not home, not liberty, not life itself”. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that our governing party is a tyrannical force seeking to destroy the independent judiciary, but the political saga over immigration has laid out a slippery slope that would not look so dangerous if it weren’t for the examples of Poland and Hungary, where an illiberal democracy has been proclaimed in the latter and almost consecrated in the former. Immigration as a political issue has profoundly shaped European and American politics, pushing British voters to leave the European Union and mainland Europeans towards far-right candidates. Indeed, centrist Macron in France has all but capitulated to the far-right in his own immigration reform last year, with Le Pen claiming an ideological victory. 

In the face of these domestic and international pressures, it is incumbent on British politicians to refrain from using scapegoats and to stop pandering to populists. Appeasement of the far-right by moderates has time and time again seen the appeaser swallowed up by the extremists. Every veiled insult flung at both domestic and international courts only further weakens the delicate balance of power the U.K. maintains. We need politicians who can take the difficult and necessary actions, both at home and abroad, without recourse to policy that undermines our democracy in the process. 

With Labour set to trounce the Tories in the general election later this year, Starmer must heed the lessons of what thirteen years in power can do to a party, and the Conservatives must resist the urge to lurch to the ideological extremes if they find themselves seeking yet another leader for their time in opposition. Finally, both parties need to stop campaigning on a message of fear and blame, and instead offer an optimistic future forward for the country. If voters are continually told that the other party is all but the devil incarnate, how can we ever hope to build a political system that demonstrates to voters that sensible, forward-looking policies should win out over extreme policies which, at the very best, paper over cracks and, at worst, cut a deep ravine through our democracy?

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