‘I served in the government for 38 years – this is why the UK is no longer a sup

Simon McDonald reveals he told colleagues he voted against Brexit

The UK has fallen off the precipice as a global power despite its attempt to continue acting as it did in the last century, Express.co.uk has been told.

It comes as Britain settles into its new role on the international stage after Brexit and pursues a new kind of multilateral diplomacy.

The UK’s departure from the EU has confronted it with the momentous task of redrafting its international identity while simultaneously pursuing its former role as a hard power broker around the world.

For Downing Street, the opportunity to carve out a new path has enabled it to strengthen long-standing roles in key multilateral organisations.

But for Lord Simon McDonald, the UK’s most senior civil servant up until recently, things couldn’t be further from the truth, and the country, in terms of hard power, is a shadow of its former self.

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“I worked for the Foreign Office for 38 years, and I agree that the UK is still a big country on the international stage: there are 193 in the United Nations and the UK is one of the top half dozen powers,” he told Express.co.uk.

“But what has changed since the UK was the biggest or preponderant power is other countries catching up and overtaking.

“In 2023, the US and then China are so far ahead of everybody else, that I think only those two countries can be categorised as superpowers.

“Everybody else in comparison is medium-sized. So even though we are a big country, and we have a lot to offer in many spheres, in the terms that we’re used to thinking of ourselves, in hard power terms, we are not at the top anymore.”

The process of Britain’s decline as a hard power has been happening for decades, according to Lord McDonald, who is the former Head of the Diplomatic service and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In this sense, the UK has in a way become ignorant to its demise while continuing to operate in a way that was more common 100 years ago.

“I think the UK has found it quite difficult to come to terms with a different standing in the world,” he said. “[The problem is that Britain] is still trying to play a hard power game, but we don’t have the resources to back that up any more.”

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“No matter what we’re doing, these days, we need to do it in partnership,” he added.

To find a clear example of Britain’s so-called hard power you have to turn back the clock around 200 years, to the year 1814.

Back then, Britain was enjoying what many have described as “Pax Brittanica”, a period of relative peace with Europe’s great powers in which it grew to the size of a global hegemonic titan.

After 1918, however, the geopolitical landscape was changing, and Britain was fast losing out. The US had begun fitting into its role as the world’s policeman, and although Britain did play a vital role in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920 and in the post-World War 2 years, its title of colossus had vanished.

So what does a country whose influence was once so great do now that it has shrunk to a bit part player? For Lord McDonald, the answer lies with ‘soft power’, “the power of persuasion and attraction”.

This takes the form of seven different parts, ones that Lord McDonald explores in his new book, Beyond Britannia: Reshaping UK Foreign Policy.

They make the UK powerful in a way that can influence events on the global stage without direct action, and place it in the enviable position of composed mediator which few can compete with.

“We have the judiciary and a place for arbitration, the UK acting as a safe pair of hands for companies and countries who are in dispute,” he said.

“Then there’s our universities, particularly our old universities, which are among the best in the world and at the very cutting edge of technology and research. Our culture and sport are vital, as is our media which is trusted around the world.

“And in seventh place: our institutions, like the civil service and monarchy. Their counterparts around the world are under pressure but ours have shown great resilience, and they help our country and offer a model to others.”

Britain is already showing its flair for soft power. In the early days of the Ukraine war, it was the first country in the world to supply hard-up Kyiv with weapons and has continued to do so ever since.

The simple act “galvanised” the world to do the same and set the tone in a way that is subtle yet powerful, and has helped Ukraine fend off a much larger power.

But there is a caveat. In a world that appears to be on the precipice of something big, with China and the US at loggerheads over Taiwan, an all-out war in the Middle East that risks engulfing the entire region, and the very obvious conflict in Ukraine – not to mention the nuclear question – soft power may prove to get Britain only so far.

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