9 October 2018

George Brandis: Britain should not fear Brexit


“Liberal democrat” is how George Brandis likes to describe himself. The Australian High Commissioner moved to London in May to begin his tenure. This is Brandis’s first foray into the realm of diplomacy, having had a career first in law and then Australian domestic politics.

Being a liberal democrat helps in this sphere where commination and nuance are crucial tools. Prior to taking up his new role, Brandis had served as both Attorney General and Leader of the Government in the Australian Senate under both the Abbott and Turnbull governments as part of his 18 years in the Australian Parliament.

I meet the High Commissioner at his office in Australia House on the Strand. It’s one of the grandest diplomatic missions in London (chandeliers, Australia marble staircases adorned with portraits of former High Commissioners and murals) and is celebrating its 100th birthday — the oldest continuous diplomatic mission in the Capital.

Brandis counts Magdalen College Oxford as his alma mater, where he did his post-graduate degree between 1981 and 1983, at the start of a decade of tumultuous change not unlike the current geopolitical scene. The High Commissioner reflected on that specific era as being a turning point, referring to the 1970s as “a dreadful decade” and “the worst post-war decade for the West. But the arrival of Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul II all within a two-year period were a turning point, igniting a decade of radical change in the 1980s.

He describes these people as “historical figures with a broadly similar world view – they were all profoundly opposed to Communism and all willing to work collaboratively together.” The policies in the Vatican were in line with the policies of the great Western democracies. And this “changed the entire mental landscape of the 1980s”.

Our meeting took place on a Thursday when Theresa May met with EU leaders in Salzburg and Brexit dominated the news. The High Commissioner – in precise diplomatic style – refuses to be drawn on whether the British unmooring from the EU is a good or bad decision.

“That’s entirely a matter for the British people,” he reflects and then adds. “But, incontrovertibly, it does mark an important turning point in British history. I was at a function over the summer – a political function – and I overheard an influential Tory backbencher say to someone ‘We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1530s’.

“The point he was making was – leaving aside the times of actual armed conflict – this is probably the most important recalibration of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Continental Europe since the Reformation. I think centuries to come, it will be seen – in terms of British history, at least – to have been an event of profound significance.”

But in trying to give meaning to Brexit, Brandis sees the future opportunities dominated by international trade. “Well, it certainly does open up the opportunities for Britain to become more engaged as an international citizen and, in particular, it opens up the opportunities for Britain when it comes to international trade. Britain’s trade policy for 40 years has essentially been sub-contracted to the EU…now it will and indeed must have an independent trade policy which will give Britain much greater flexibility of movement beyond Continental Europe.

George Brandis meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace in May. Photo: Getty Images

“Continental Europe will continue to be Britain’s most important trading partner for obvious reasons – close proximity and integration of the economies – irrespective of Brexit. Nevertheless it does create huge opportunities for Britain beyond Europe, across the Atlantic and in Asia and Australasia.”

Brandis draws on past successes to envisage future potential. “I know at the moment there is a level of concern and anxiety about what Brexit means – but I make the point that if ever there is a nation in modern history whose prosperity has been the outcome of international trade, it’s Britain. More so than any nation you can think about.”

Re-reading Trevelyan’s History of England since his arrival reminded Brandis of how the UK’s location on the edge of eastern side of the Atlantic at a time of international trade helped lead Britain to become the most powerful nation in the world. “So if ever there was a country that should be afraid of the opportunities of international trade that should not be Britain. Timidity and anxiety and fear of the opportunities for international trade cuts right across the grain of British history.”

Brandis does not accept the oft-repeated argument that Brexit was just a protest vote against establishments and elite, a view he feels underestimates the build-up of 40 years of Euroscepticism in domestic British politics.

“I know the mantra of the commentariat over the last couple of years has been to talk about the wave of populism – with Brexit and Donald Trump. The comparison or the linkage between those two events can be instructive, but equally I think it is unhelpful and historically reckless to assume that they are part of the very same phenomenon.

“The election of Donald Trump, which – of course – was by a very narrow margin, had everything to do with the domestic politics of the United States at the time and the incompetence of the Clinton campaign, because don’t forget that that election was hers to lose.”

He sees the Brexit vote as having everything to do with domestic influences within the UK “and was the apotheosis of 40 years of Euroscepticism. And although you can draw useful comparisons between the two, to suggest that they represent a common historical movement, I think is simple-minded.”

It is worth noting that the UK always had the lowest or second turnout in European elections, never joined the Euro and the Schengen Agreement causing the High Commissioner to reflect: “I think Britain has always, for geographical and historical reasons, had a certain separateness from Europe.”

Brandis believes that the greatest change in the world since the 1970s is the reduction of global poverty. 40 years ago there were literally billions of people in the Third World living in poverty. The proportion today is much smaller. He regards this as even bigger than the collapse of Communism. And the other development is has been social media – is it damaging debate, making it coarser and more aggressive? Politics has become bubble into which lock themselves.

He thinks technology has had a massive impact across all walks of life. As a ‘liberal democrat’ he believes the more engagement with politics the better.

This is the positive side. On the other hand, the “18 years I spent in the Australian Parliament coincided with the rise of Twitter and the popularisation of social media generally. It has increased the velocity in which ideas are discussed and in which knowledge is circulated. That itself can be a good thing too because the more knowledge of ideas is circulated, the better. On the negative side, it means that events move sometimes at a velocity much faster than the capacity of decision makers to deal with it.

Secondly, particularly, Twitter, has meant the trivialisation of discussion and the discourse, though it might be livelier, is much more superficial and much less sophisticated.”

He recalls something Obama said in his farewell address referring to Twitter “putting people in silos and online communities in which they only hear like-minded views feeding back to them.

“Civil discourse is based on the exchange of ideas. One of the baleful things about social media has been to discourage discourse at the expense of the reinforcement of existing prejudices and attitudes – the siloing of opinions.”

The pursuit of innovation in diplomacy – like politics – keeps its relevant. There has been no US Ambassador to Australia since 2016. However this does mean the streamlining of diplomatic power and he believes the need for a country to have a physical presence in another will not diminish.

“We at Australia House engage every day with high level diplomacy” and engages with the public and government across all levels – “all of those relationships depend on a high level of intimacy and trust which I believe can only be achieved through personal relationships, not relationships mediated over Skype or a video conference.”

He believe the degree of speaking between nations is more intense than it’s ever been – from Leaders Week at the UN General Assembly, every year there is the G20, in Australia and the Pacific there is APEC – “Which is the regional meeting of all the powers effectively bordering the Pacific or Asian powers”. Then are regional meetings all around the world. Leaders speak which each other more than two generations ago.

As High Commissioner he also represents the more than 100,000 Australians who have made the UK their home. There are more Australians living in the UK than in the rest of the EU combined and in the whole of the United States. It is the largest concentration of Australians outside of Australia. Speaking the same language helps “But also the family relationships. More Australians trace their lineage to the British Isles than any other part of the world.”

From an earlier era, Australians in the UK meant the likes of Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. There are inspirational figures like Peter Tatchell, who has campaigned all his life for LGBT rights and was most recently seen protesting in central Moscow on the day of the opening of the World Cup. There are cultural figures like Cate Blanchett, who moved back here two years ago and resides with her family in Sussex. There are also controversial figures like Julian Assange. Assange has been in the Ecuadorian Embassy for six years now and is now an Ecuadorian citizen.

“I wouldn’t put Julian Assange or for that matter Peter Tatchell in the same class as Barry Humphries or Germaine Greer or Clive James,” says Brandis. “Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Clive James still are, and have been since the 1960s, very significant cultural figures in this country. Peter Tatchell has had an important role as a political activist. Julian Assange I don’t think belongs in the same category of people who’ve had an important influence. He’s certainly attracted a lot of attention, but I wouldn’t regard him as influencer.”

Then there is Lynton Crosby, another Australian resident in London. “Lynton is an old friend of mine. I’ve known Lynton since we were both in our early 20s in youth politics in Australia.”

He thinks the Australian living in Britain who has the had the greatest impact was Sir Frank Macpharlane Burnet, a virologist who won the 1960 Nobel Prize for Medicine and spent most of his working life in Oxford. “We shouldn’t forget the scientists and the scholars working quietly away in laboratories who’ve changed the world.”

Another sector is business. He lauds Rupert Murdoch as an individual who had huge impact, changing the culture of Fleet Street and the way newspapers were printed. “Murdoch changed the media landscape in this country in a way few people, if any, have ever done. I think Rupert Murdoch is one of the most brilliant business figures of his generation.”

But what is the attraction of coming to the UK for Australians? “It’s a shared history.” But also “there are educational and professional opportunities that Australians see here – I’m a case in point. I did my post-graduate study at Oxford. I was taught law by some of the best legal scholars in the world…the commonality of laws is something that’s important. The legal profession in the United Kingdom is thick under foot with Australian lawyers, by the way.”

Aside from economics and a shared social and cultural background, there is another relationship — a co-operation exists at the level of shared intelligence, notably the Five-Eyes intelligence alliance of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Under the Australian system, when I was Attorney General I had a lot of responsibilities that in the United Kingdom would have been on the desk of the Home Secretary. Domestic security was my single biggest responsibility… I went to all the Five Eyes ministerial conferences over the years and I saw the intelligence on a daily basis, a product of that collaboration.

“Many lives have been saved in our member countries from terrorist attacks because of the sharing of intelligence between these countries in particular. It’s an intimate, trusting relationship. We have Australian intelligence officers and UK intelligence officers reciprocally working each other’s agencies, which share intelligence as collaborators all of the time.”

The nature of warfare has changed greatly since Brandis last lived in Europe during the Cold War. New nemeses in the current geo-political global climate are more likely to be hunched over a computer and the frontline troops defending the West are not soldiers but intelligence officers, people the High Commissioner holds in the highest regard.

“The intelligence community, which by its very nature, has a very low profile, is, in my view, as important in keeping us safe as the military, for example.”

“The paradox of the intelligence services is that the public are only vaguely aware of them. By their very nature they do keep a low profile.”

Having been at the centre of it as the minister responsible in Australia, he cannot stress the importance enough: “I would go so far as to say when I was the Attorney General in Australia of all the agencies within the Attorney General’s portfolio the one that impressed me most was ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.”

Any discussion of the UK and Australia will inevitably include reference the future role of the royal family. Prince Harry and Meghan are going to the Invictus Games in October. “They’ll be extremely warmly received,” he assures us in fact they will get, to use a cliché, a “rock star reception”.

Is Australia becoming a republic inevitable when Charles becomes King, which will probably happen some time in the next decade? Brandis dismisses the idea. “It’s hardly ever a topic in the top five, or 10 or 20 issues on the political agenda. But it’s a dinner party conversation amongst certain elements of the intelligentsia. The last time it was tried in 1999 it fell flat.”

For a republic to happen it would require an amendment to the Australian constitution and the adopting of a different model of governance. Historically, Australians are sceptical of constitutional change. There have been only six successful constitutional changes since federation and the last successful constitutional referendum was back in 1977.

“I don’t detect a public appetite for that,” he says. “The Queen is revered and respected in Australia.” Charles spent some of his schooling in Australia and has visited the country many times and “is a great Australophile”.

Des Brown is a journalist who writes about politics and foreign affairs.