Post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ as the theatre of the New Cold War

One of the central tenets of the Leave campaign in 2016 and of Boris Johnson’s campaign in 2019 was the idea of ‘Global Britain’: a prosperous, extrovert, sovereign country that has taken back control of its laws and borders, quickly doing beneficial trade deals with the world, away from the regulatory shackles of the EU. The reality, as we are about to discover, is slightly more complicated and this election campaign serves as a warning.

The reality is that Britain is already facing major challenges to its security and sovereignty – not from the European Union, but from Russia and China. Both countries, each for their own reasons and in their own ways, are engaging in separate massive campaigns of strategic expansion, influence and penetration in the domestic systems of western liberal democracies, the Middle East and – in the case of China – Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, too. The evidence that this is already happening in the UK, too is vast, sustained and public: from daily cyber attacks (against infrastructure, academia, industry and government targets) and assassinations in UK soil (such as the Salisbury chemical attack) to complex hybrid war operations (including disinformation campaigns) and the cultivation of networks of agents and informants within UK communities – including universities.

We know that Russian activists tried to assist the break-up of the UK during the 2015 referendum on Scottish independence – and when they failed, they orchestrated a disinformation campaign to discredit the referendum itself. We know that the Leave campaign was supported by Russian bots and by a conglomerate of shadowy economic and political interest groups associated with the Kremlin, Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 Trump campaign.

The Russian government would have probably been happy regardless of the outcome of the UK election. As revealed in the report on illicit Russian activities in Britain by the cross-party intelligence and security select committee (ISC), which the government tried to suppress, several Russian oligarchs – some associated with Vladimir Putin himself – have donated large amounts to the Conservative Party and are socially associated with the prime minister. Such reports are not new; evidence of Russian cash flows into the party’s coffers has been public for years. Labour’s lacklustre support of the government’s counter-measures after Salisbury aided the Russian government’s misinformation campaign, which fabricated and promoted more than 30 different theories about who was responsible so as to sow confusion and cynicism towards the UK authorities.

As for China, the new government will now have to make a decision on whether to allow Huawei into the UK’s 5G network – a move that would have massive security implications. Other countries have already banned or are considering banning Huawei from using their networking equipment, while evidence has emerged of the Chinese government putting pressure on foreign governments to approve 5G network agreements with the company.

In 2016, the Chief of the MI6, Sir Alex Younger, warned that attempts to subvert democracy by countries such as Russia “pose a fundamental threat to British sovereignty”. The UK may be taking its laws and borders back from the European Union, but it is also stepping outside of the only reliably liberal and democratic supranational structure in the world. Britain will now have to fulfil its ‘global mission’ alone; working with a notoriously unreliable US administration (itself going into an impeachment trial and an election year); with two nuclear superpowers carefully placing their chips around the globe; and with its domestic political and technological infrastructures under the influence of those same foreign actors and, in the case of social media, murky private interests.

Rather than emerging as a sovereign beacon – a politically correct neo-colonial power for the woke 21st century – Britain may find its own domestic sovereignty colonised as a theatre of the New Cold War. This New Cold War may be different to the old one; its aims, risks, costs, weapons, victims and endgame are still unclear, invisible and fragmented. However, the core concept of deterrence – of setting credible red lines – is still applicable. All this may be happening simply because we are allowing it to happen.