I was at the UN general assembly in New York the other day and talking to the foreign minister of another country. I won’t say which one, since I must preserve my reputation for diplomacy. But let’s just say they have an economy about the size of Australia (though getting smaller, alas), plenty of snow, nuclear missiles, balalaikas, oligarchs, leader who strips to the waist… you get the picture.
After a few tense exchanges, my counterpart gave a theatrical sigh and said that any difficulties we had in our relationship were all Britain’s fault: “It was you guys who imposed democracy on us in 1990.” I was a bit startled by this, and I decided I couldn’t let it go unchallenged, and I said: “Hang on, Sergei.” I said: “Aren’t you in favour of democracy?” And then I asked for a show of hands in the room… “All those in favour of democracy please show…” I said.
And you would have thought that this was a relatively uncontroversial thing, a bit like asking Maria von Trapp whether she was in favour of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And I am proud to say that the entire UK side of the room raised their hands as one to show that democracy was indeed one of our favourite things. But much to my amazement, our opposite numbers just kept their hands on the table and gave us what we diplomats call the hairy eyeball and of course they felt I was winding them up; and there is a sense in which my question was semi-satirical.
But the exchange was also deeply serious, and revealing about the way the world has changed – or perhaps the way in which it has failed to change – since that moment of exhilaration in 1990 when the Berlin wall had come down, and the Soviet union was coming to an end, and some of us – and yes, I was one – really believed that we had come to a moment of ideological resolution.
After seven frozen and sometimes terrifying decades of communist totalitarian rule – the gulags, the oppression of eastern europe and all the things that have been conveniently forgotten by the Dave and Deirdre Sparts who were still singing about Lenin’s red flag last week at the Labour party conference – we genuinely thought that after all that misery and slaughter, we were seeing the final triumph of that conglomerate of western liberal values and ideals that unite the people in this room. Not just free markets, but all the things that we then believed, in that brief shining moment, were the essential concomitants of free-market capitalism: rule of law, human rights, independent judiciary, habeas corpus, equalities of race and gender and sexual orientation, the eternal and inalienable right of the media to make fun of the politicians.
We assumed, then, that this political freedom went with economic freedom – like buying a two for one ice cream snickers bar (only free markets could produce something so ingenious) and a copy of Private Eye (free speech of a kind still unknown in much of the planet), like two sides of liberty’s golden coin. And yet I have to tell you that both sides of that coin have been tarnished and devalued over the last two decades.
We must be humble and realistic enough to accept that, in many eyes, the notion that we could endlessly expand the realm of liberal democracy was badly damaged, alas, by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and symmetrically our model of free-market anglo-saxon capitalism as practised in London and New York was seriously discredited by the Crash of 2008, and the global suspicion of bankers and we have taken those twin blows like punches to the midriff. We have been winded and sometimes lacking in confidence in these ideals; and if you look at the course of events in the last 10 years, I am afraid you can make the case that it is partly as a result of that lack of western self-confidence – political, military, economic – that in some material ways, the world has got less safe, more dangerous, more worrying.
After a long post-war period in which the world was broadly getting more peaceful, the number of deaths in conflict has risen from 49,000 in 2010 to 167,000 last year. The global number of refugees is up by 30 per cent on 2013 to 46m and though much of this refugee crisis can be attributed to the war in Syria, it is part of a wider arc of instability that sweeps across from Iraq to Libya. This matters profoundly to our country because it is the continuing savagery of the Assad regime against the people of Aleppo and the complicity of the Russians in committing what are patently war crimes – bombing hospitals, when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals – that is making it impossible for peace negotiations to begin and that is prolonging a migration crisis that at one stage last year had overwhelmed Europe’s ability to cope.
When the violent extremism of Daesh is erupting like boils across the face of the Middle East, we are inevitably seeing the contagion spread to cities in Germany, France, Belgium – and in Britain as well. If that threat to travel continues to have a palpable, chilling effect on tourism and perhaps even on trade, then for a great trading nation like Britain, that is a matter of deep concern. There is perhaps an even more pernicious phenomenon – stemming, however unfairly, from the disastrous events in Iraq – which is the temptation of more and more governments to take this instability and insecurity as an excuse to move away from democracy.
Across Africa, you can see for the first time in decades that governments are gradually becoming more authoritarian. The number of African countries rated free or partly free has fallen from 34 to 29 in the past 10 years. There are four African presidents who are currently re-writing their national constitutions to tighten their grip on power and I am afraid there are plenty of countries large and small where the idea of multi-party representative democracy is obstinately failing to catch on.
There is a view that has gained ground over the last few years that Fukuyama was wrong, that there is no symmetry in our golden coin, and that you can have economic prosperity without political and social freedom. Indeed, there is a view now in many parts of the world that the only way to ensure prosperity and stability is to suppress freedom – to crack down on pesky NGOs and irritating journalists and independent judges and generally to deprecate the western liberal consensus about how a society should be ordered.
And so if I have one message for you, my friends, it is that this illiberal analysis is deeply and dangerously wrong, and that these social and political freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to practice whatever religion you want and to live your life as you please – are not inimical to prosperity. These freedoms are in fact essential to sustained growth. This is not the moment to cast aspersions on any other country where lack of freedom is hindering economic growth. I can prove my point simply by asking you to look at the society we live in, a 21st-century Britain that incarnates that symmetry. Why have we got more tech wizards in London than any other city in Europe?
Is it because the politicians decided to embark on a soviet style programme of training people to do tech? On the contrary, I had no idea what tech was – though later claimed credit for it. It was because London acquired a deserved reputation as the greatest city on earth, a great jiving funkapolitan melting-pot where, provided you did nothing to damage the interests of others and provided you obeyed the law, you could make of your life pretty much what you wanted.
And that’s why we lead in all those creative and cultural sectors and that’s why we have the best universities: because the best minds from across the world are meeting in some of the best pubs and bars and nightclubs like subatomic particles colliding in a cyclotron and they are producing those flashes of innovation that are essential for long-term economic success.
It will not surprise you to know that Britain is ranked among the top three most innovative societies on earth. America is 4th and China is 25th and indeed the entire top 10 innovative societies are free market liberal democracies. That is why we are still the fastest growing European economy, according to the OECD and this new and dynamic government led by Theresa May is working not just to ensure that this success is felt by everyone in a country that works for everyone but I also believe we should have absolutely no shame or embarrassment in championing our ideals around the world.
In this era of dithering and dubitation, this should be the message of global Britain to the world: that we stick up for free markets as vigorously as we stick up for democracy and human rights and when all is said and done, my friends – and I know that not everyone will agree with this, but what the hell – I believe that vote on June 23 was for economic freedom and political freedom as well.
Over the past couple of months, I have sat in all kinds of EU meetings, vast and ruminative feasts of lunch or dinner in the castles of Mitteleuropa washed down with the finest wines known to man, and on one occasion a splendid breakfast that seemed to stretch, for course after course, from 8 am to 11. I have enjoyed them all. I have made friends, alliances and had wonderful conversations in my various euro-creoles but I have to tell any lingering gloomadon-poppers that never once have I felt that this country would be in any way disadvantaged by extricating ourselves from the EU treaties. And indeed there are some ways in which we will be liberated to be more active on the world stage than ever before – because we are not leaving Europe.
We will remain committed to all kinds of European cooperation at an intergovernmental level, whether it is maintaining sanctions against Russia for what is happening in Ukraine, or sending our Navy to help the Italians stem the migrant flow through the central Mediterranean. But we will also be able to speak up more powerfully with our own distinctive voice leading the world as we now are, in imposing a ban on ivory helping to save the elephant in a way that the disunited EU is unable to do – in fact we have an absurd situation in which the EU is actually trying to veto the ivory ban in spite of having a president called Donald Tusk – or relaunching the cause of global free trade that has been stalled since the failure of the Doha round.
I can think of few more positive forces in the global economy than the world’s fifth richest economy taking back control not just of our democracy and our borders and our cash, but taking back control of our tariff schedules in Geneva, so that we can galvanise free trade, break the log jam and, as our new PM has rightly said, we can now become the global champions and agitators for this phenomenon doing free trade deals with countries around the world.
Liam Fox will do deals that will continue the process of lifting billions out of poverty and that is why the world needs Global Britain more than ever, as a campaigner for the values we believe in and a catalyst for change and reform and economic and political freedom in a world that has lost confidence in those values. And of course there are those who say that we can’t do it – that we are too small, too feeble, too geopolitically reduced to have that kind of influence. (I’m thinking of the pogonologically challenged Labour party, where they literally want to abolish the armed services and to keep our new nuclear submarines as a demented job creation programme – sending them to sea without any nukes aboard so that the whole nation is turned into a kind of glorified military capon firing blanks.)
I am not going to pretend that this country is something we are not. Every day I go into an office so vast that you could comfortably fit two squash courts and so dripping with gilt bling that it looks like something from the Kardashians and as I sit at the desk of George Nathaniel Curzon, I sometimes reflect that this was once the nerve centre of an empire that was seven times the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent under Trajan; and when I go into the Map Room of Palmerston, I cannot help remembering that this country over the last 200 years has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries – that is most of the members of the UN – not a point I majored on in New York at the UNGA and that is because those days are gone forever and that is a profoundly good thing.
It is good for Britain and good for the world that in the last 60 years – in living memory – those responsibilities have been taken away and yet it would be a fatal mistake now to underestimate what this country is doing or what it can do because in spite of Iraq, it is simply not the case that every military intervention has been a disaster. Far from it.
Look at the achievement in Sierra Leone, where we were instrumental not just in ending the civil war, but in wiping out Ebola. Look at Somalia, where my predecessor William Hague helped initiate a bold programme to tackle the pirates that plagued the coast of that country and, together with a coalition of other European countries, British ships took them on, with all the courage and decisiveness of our 19th century forebears.
And the result? Before the anti-pirate campaign, their depredations had cost the world economy about $7bn a year. When Britain stepped in, the attacks stopped altogether – and it is a happy fact that since 2012 there have been more Hollywood films about Somali pirates starring Tom Hanks than there have been pirate attacks.
Of course we don’t want to wield our hard power; we think an age before we do so. But when we give our armed services clear and achievable missions, we can still be remarkably effective and with 2 per cent of our GDP spent on defence we will be the leading military player in western Europe for the foreseeable future. This hard power is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.
Up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or JK Rowling – who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity – or just the BBC. And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit it can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values. It was Sergei Lavrov himself who told me that he had not only watched our version of War and Peace, but thought it was “very well done” and that, from the Kremlin, was praise.
If you want final proof of our irresistible soft power, I remind you, as I always do, that this country not only invented or codified just about every sport or game known to humanity but this year it was our athletes – from a country that can boast only 1 pc of the world’s population – that came second in the Olympic and paralympic games and I hope my friends in Beijing will not mind if I point out that their teams had 1.4bn people to draw on.
Yes, it is true as I have said that the world is not as healthy or as safe as it should be, and it is true that in 2016 we are worryingly afflicted by war and terrorism and the new perils of cyber-crime and by the painful refusal of many parts of the world to accept what you and I might see as common sense that free markets and free societies go together. But in case you are remotely tempted to despair, I urge you to look not at the problems but at the successes that these free institutions have helped to engender.
For all its problems, life expectancy in Africa has risen astonishingly as that continent has entered the global economic system. In 2000 the average Ethiopian lived to only 47 – it is now 64 and climbing; in Zambia, the increase has been from 44 years to 60. In 1990, 37 pc of the world’s population lived in poverty – that is down to 9.6 pc today and yes, that is partly thanks to UK spending on development aid – £300 m a year to Ethiopia alone. But above all it is our economic ideas, our beliefs, our values that continue to lift the world out of poverty and that must continue to be our ambition.
It has been an extraordinary experience to have been Foreign Secretary for the last few months and together with my fantastic ministerial colleagues Alan Duncan for Europe and America, Joyce Anelay for the Commonwealth and UN, Tobias Ellwood for Africa and the Middle east, Alok Sharma for Asia and the Pacific, we have made literally hundreds of trips cats-cradling the world in a truly stupefying accumulation of airmiles, and I have confirmed to myself that we have in the Foreign Office the finest diplomatic service in the world – covering far more countries than the French with only 70 per cent of the budget. And I am giving nothing away when I say we have the world’s most superb intelligence services. When I am making a speech in a foreign city, I look around the heaving room and become aware of a phenomenon that I think people in this country are barely aware of, and that is that of the Brits now alive and born in this country fully one in 10 is now living abroad. We are talking 5 or 6 m people – a population the size of Scotland.
No other rich country – according to the World Bank – has a diaspora on that scale. No other country is such a formidable exporter of human talent, business people, lawyers, teachers, prospectors, adventurers, poets, painters, whisky-sellers, French knicker sellers to France. No other country is turned so tangibly outwards and into the world. And what they take with them is not just a knowledge of English, or the cast of the Archers, or which game has a position called silly mid-off – but an instinctive set of values.
Whether they are retired British teachers working as monitors in the Ukrainian war zone or Met police officers training their counterparts in the parts of Syria held by the moderate opposition, I find that these Brits are respected and admired – in sometimes unexpected ways – by ordinary people around the world. And in an age of anxiety and uncertainty, it is surely obvious that the values of global Britain are needed more than ever.
And though we can never be complacent, and though we can never take our position for granted, Churchill was right when he said that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind and in expressing our values I believe that Global Britain is a soft power superpower and that we can be immensely proud of what we are achieving.