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An island adrift

The inside story of the Foreign Office’s losing battle to find post-Brexit Britain a new place in the world

In the summer of 2016, a few weeks after Theresa May became prime minister, Number 10 approached the White House with an idea. Leaving the EU, as May herself had pointed out during the referendum, would mean losing international influence. But if May could lead Britain into a new alliance, she thought, perhaps some of that damage could be fixed. Britain and the US, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, already co-operated on intelligence through the “Five Eyes” alliance. What if, May suggested, this alliance expanded beyond intelligence and became a formal political bloc? Barack Obama’s response was blunt. “That’s crazy,” he told his aides. “What are those five countries going to do?” They didn’t have an answer and the offer was declined (in slightly more diplomatic language).

Since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, huge questions surrounding the UK’s place in the world have been left unanswered. May has come up with a slogan, Global Britain, but nothing so far resembling a strategy. The cabinet has been at loggerheads about how far—or not—to remain “aligned” with the European economy. But even to the extent the UK is tempted to try something different, there is no agreement about what that is—whether to concentrate, as George Osborne did at one time, on aligning with China? Or forging new links with other emerging economies? To double down on the relationship with Washington, or look back to historic colonial connections?

Attempts to forge closer trade links with the Commonwealth have been mocked as Empire 2.0, while this year’s Commonwealth summit was overshadowed by the row over the ill-treatment of the Windrush generation. May has sought to work with European leaders on Iran, climate change and Russia, but has also angered politicians on the continent with heated rhetoric over Brexit. Meanwhile, early attempts to befriend Donald Trump ended in embarrassment. All that seems clear is that the country is leaving a club without any real idea where it is going.

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In Prospect's November issue: Paul Collier explains how major cities in the UK will always be in the shadow of London unless capitalism is overhauled and suggests ways that we might be able to improve the situation in those communities that capitalism has left behind. Meanwhile, Steve Bloomfield asks what is going at the Foreign Office. The once great institution that was a symbol of Britain’s global power now seems to be lost and unable to explains its role. Also, Samira Shackle explores a Pakistani protest movement that is unnerving the country’s military. Elsewhere in the issue: Dahlia Lithwick suggests that the Supreme Court will struggle to retain its authority now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the bench. Philip Ball argues that DNA doesn’t define destiny as he reviews a new book by Robert Plomin. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer debate political correctness.