THE watching world may have been stunned by the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, but could it be that his bold, outward looking, charismatic approach is exactly what Britain needs right now?
At a time of economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote, we need a Foreign Secretary who can be a cheerleader abroad, selling Britain as a brand and convincing others that we have no intention of retreating from the world stage.
He speaks several languages, was born in the United States, spent much of his early life in Belgium and his ancestry is of Turkish, French and Russian-Jewish origin. In other words, he’s no “little Englander”.
Let’s also not forget that he was the Mayor of London who presided over the success of the 2012 Olympics, managed a budget of £17bn a year and had great success in encouraging trade and foreign investment into the capital. It goes some way to explaining why he was elected twice in a traditionally Labour-supporting city.
Boris’s first fortnight hasn’t exactly been quiet. The horrific attack in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey the following day will go down as two of the most significant and challenging events this year. He approached both of these issues with a sense of steadiness and professionalism, offering compassionate words to the French people and urging European unity in fighting terrorism, stating that “it represents a continuing threat to us and the whole of Europe and we must meet it together”.
In these gruelling first few days as Foreign Secretary, his leadership and experience shone through, perhaps a sign that he will now make more effort to choose his words wisely. His first meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry was full of warm and optimistic language despite Boris having to tackle a few awkward questions regarding his previous statements about world leaders. He also emphasised the strong bonds between the UK and US, with Kerry stating that “this man is very smart and capable”.
Boris’s every move is now under intense scrutiny from the world’s media (one can only imagine the disproportionate reaction if he’d hit his head on the door of Downing Street as Kerry did) but he has held his ground and is now receiving praise for leading calls to investigate IS war crimes.
Boris’s appointment also presents an opportunity to create a global Britain that benefits everyone. We saw from the referendum result that there was little enthusiasm for the EU outside of London and perhaps now the rest of the UK may feel the benefits of international links under the guidance of the Foreign Secretary.
Simply having control over our own foreign affairs is already a cause for excitement. Take the issue of free movement. Whilst there was little enthusiasm for European free movement in the UK, a recent survey found that the idea of free movement between English- speaking, developed Commonwealth countries (UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) was supported by around 60 per cent of people in all four countries – far higher than the support for EU free movement.
Whilst making this a reality may sound like a long shot, the excitement it generates speaks volumes, showing that the British people see a future outside of the EU and seek leaders who can harness this new power over our foreign affairs and lead Britain to a prosperous and outward-looking future outside of the EU.
What’s more is that all those who doubted Britain’s ability to thrive outside the EU are already being proven wrong. The president of the Confederation of Indian Industry has described a UK-India trade deal as “made in heaven”; Australia has said it is keen to strike a deal “as soon as possible”; and the US Congress has fast-tracked plans to open up free trade with the UK. So much for being “back of the queue”.
In our increasingly globalised and inter-connected world, it is clear that the whole of Britain has a stake in the way we approach our foreign affairs. Perhaps if anything, this is a chance to be more outward looking in a way that works for all, with leaders who do our country proud rather than talk it down.
Time will tell if Boris Johnson’s input is right for the times, but the passion and motivation he has shown so far are certainly a positive sign of what we can look forward to in a future that is increasingly eventful and unpredictable.
Alex Wright is from Scarborough. He now works in political and public affairs in London.