Brexit - Three Risks to International Security

Feb 28, 2018 - Boston.

A former spy chief discusses Brexit.

At Harvard’s school of government today, a lunchtime talk “Brexit's Impact on the Future of International Security: A Conversation with Sir John Sawers”. The British former security chief and diplomat (you may remember him as the spy who appeared on Facebook in speedos) outlined some of the risks Brexit poses to international security. Answering a question, he reassured the international audience that there was no immediate threat of Scotland becoming independent as Scottish nationalism “is on the wane” - the result of the SNP “poor record” in administration.

Scottish Independence “on the wane”

Hosting Sawers, faculty member Nicholas Burns asked if in ten or fifteen years there could be a UK of England and Wales, adding that even someone of Irish heritage like himself wouldn’t wish to see that.

Sawers said: “the hard and unpleasant truth is that the Brexit campaign was driven by the force of English nationalism.” Although in part prompted by a lack of perceived benefits from globalisation: “the driving force was from the right rather than the left.” Scotland and Northern ireland didn’t vote for Brexit - they had more of an issue with rule from Westminster than Brussels.

But he added that there was no real threat of Scottish independence in the foreseeable future as Scottish nationalism was “on the wane”, as has been seen with Quebec nationalism. He said “Health standards have fallen, education standards have fallen...the SNP has a poor record in administration.”(1)

He also said he didn’t see any prospect of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future. The main concern he expressed was about the Unionist community in NI, and how they might respond if they felt pushed towards a united Ireland and away from the UK.

In UK Politics, “The Centre Ground Where Politicians Used to Congregate is now Vacant”

Sawers said a subject of lively conversation at London dinner parties currently is: ”If you could remain in the EU and have Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, would you?” a question he compared to “would you rather be Red or Dead?”

Expanding on this later, he said he thought Brexit would force Britain to rely more on alliances with the US and others, noting that Trump is basically an anglophile. Corbyn’s instinct, he thought, would be for a Brexit that was closer to the EU and more independent of the US.

But in the wide-ranging debate that followed his presentation, Sawers said that he feared representative democracy was in danger of being “dumbed down” in an era of populist leaders. The Conservatives had adopted the agenda of a right wing party without changing the personnel whereas the Labour Party had been entered by the hard left. 

Britain’s first past the post electoral system dictated that there would be two parties who were ‘broad churches’. France with four parties had been better able to adapt to the emergence of populism. However Sawers noted that the SNP had managed to displace Labour in Scotland and said it was conceivable that there could be a change in the UK.  “Some political space has opened up. The centre ground where politicians used to congregate is now vacant.” The idea of a pro-Remain party opening up in the centre was "attractive" but the first past the post system made it very difficult.

Burns said the US had a similar two party system and a similar difficulty with the emergence of populism - he speculated that the Democrats may end up choosing a hard left Presidential candidate.

Britain - the “connector country”

introducing Sawers, Nicholas Burns said in his view Brexit would weaken the EU and be a loss to America. He said he viewed Britain as “the connector country”. It linked the US into the EU and he also saw it as having a more global purview than any other EU country, even France and Germany

Sawers outlined three “conundrums” for international security.

The first conundrum - Data Collection - “Britain is Taking Itself out of the Room”.

Security today, Sawers said,  depends on data - it is the data that allows you to look at the conspirators, the small groups, that alerts you to the ‘person of concern’ before they arrive in your locale.

At a recent security conference, Theresa May gave a speech indicating that post-Brexit Britain wanted to share data with the EU countries on exactly the same terms - Brexit “in name only” as far as security is concerned.

But Sawers said that the collection of data involves balancing the priorities of security and privacy. There were lively debates about this within the EU. Germany tended to be the strongest voice for privacy and Britain for security. The British view was that privacy is important but security underpins citizens’ ability to exercise their freedoms. Over the long term, Sawers is concerned about what data will be available.

After Brexit, Britain will be unable to shape the rules and the agreements. “You don't have the same say when you are standing outside with your nose pressed up against the window trying to see what is going on in the room as you do when you are in the room sitting at the table. Britain is taking itself out of the room”

The Second Conundrum - NATO - “The Main Foot on the Brake has Been Britain’s”

Sawers said that it made sense for European countries to cooperate more closely on defence capability, design, development and so on. This could reduce overlap and increase efficiency. But the British were always keen to protect NATO’s central role

This balance could be threatened by Brexit. Currently, there is, he said, a European force in Bosnia, commanded by a Brit and run through NATO with the involvement of Turkey; and a European force successfully patrolling the coast of Somalia to combat piracy, operated from Northwood near London. Both of these operations could be affected by Brexit.

Sawers was concerned about the possibility of EU cooperation on defence displacing the primacy of NATO - “the main foot on the brake has been Britain’s”. NATO could become more a union of the US, Uk and Canada. 

The Third Conundrum  - Foreign Policy - “In Bed with an Elephant”.

Within the EU, the UK was the country with the most global viewpoint, Sawers said. The UK was a voice for an open EU and it had opposed calls for greater protectionism from some quarters. The EU countries, he said, underfund defence and would be likely to lose the ability to meaningfully intervene in the wider world. 

Leaving the EU will incline Britain more towards its relationship with the US but the irony was that the more powerful the UK is in Brussels the more influence it has in Washington and the more influence in Washington, the stronger it is in Brussels. Leaving the EU would leave Britain's influence diminished.

But Sawers also said that in the EU,  it was easier to manage relationships with relative equals in terms of size, military capability, wealth, than it would be to be “in bed with an elephant”, where you can offer ideas and advice but you know the decision-making is going to be done elsewhere.



  1. When Sawers had finished his talk, I disputed this, saying that Scotland is arguably better governed than it has been in a century under the Holyrood administration, with major infrastructure project, free university education and a health system meeting targets better than that of England. (Scottish PISA scores fell a few points but that was in the middle of a radical reform of the curriculum). Sawers conceded that perhaps the prevailing wisdom in London was wrong. He may be right, however, about there being no immediate threat of Scottish independence - although not for the reasons he gave. Many Scots are already very worried about Brexit and the prospect of further upheaval may not appeal.