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Britain Alone

For decades after World War II, the British were delusional. Does Brexit mean they’ve reverted to type, wonders Conor Lenihan

- Conor Lenihan is a former Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation.

Conor Lenihan reviews Philip Stephens’ post-WW II history of Britain, tracing the nation’s sometimes delusional path to Brexit

I nBritain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit, journalist Philip Stephens has traced the post Second World War history of Britain and the deep confusion within the British establishm­ent about the country’s role in the world. The celebrated observatio­n from US Secretary of State Dean Acheson sixty years ago, that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role’, leaps from the pages of the book.

Stephens demonstrat­es how the Suez Crisis of 1956 brought home to Tory politician­s that Great Britain was no longer a world power. There followed a focus on the special relationsh­ip with the United States, evidenced by the Americans providing Britain with its ‘independen­t’ nuclear deterrent.

In the 1970s, the UK finally joined the European Economic Community, and now they’re out of it. Going forward, prime minister Boris Johnson is promising a bright future for ‘Global Britain’.

That phrase and concept, says Stephens, is as meaningles­s as Theresa May’s declaratio­n that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Global Britain harks back to an era when Winston Churchill sat around the table with Stalin and US presidents to decide on the post-war settlement.

In the afterglow of victory over the Nazis, Britain was amongst the Big Three in the world, or so it seemed. The reality was very different. Total war had practicall­y bankrupted the UK economy, and Stephens notes how the Yanks screwed their allies on credit terms when Britain was insolvent.

The post-war era was marked by the inexorable decline of empire, the source of Britain’s wealth. America stepped into the void, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that British leaders fully appreciate­d that the special relationsh­ip was something of a oneway street, with the UK becoming more and more dependent on US financial and military might.

Repeated currency crises meant that the UK needed to be tight with the Americans, who held the keys to the IMF and Bretton Woods institutio­ns, when bailouts and interventi­ons were required to rescue sterling.

Britain’s aspiration­s to stay at the top table were typified by Harold Macmillan’s charm offensive with John Kennedy in 1962, to allow Britain access to Polaris submarines and their nuclear missiles. ‘The most expensive status symbol since colonies’, was the unkind observatio­n of one American official observing the entreaties. Though Britain was no longer a major power in economic terms, it continued to act like it was. The US insisted that the nukes couldn’t be used without

Washington’s approval, but to this day the hugely expensive Trident system is a totem of Britain’s masculinit­y that has broad political support across English politician­s and public opinion.

In the post-Suez phase, when Britain threw in its lot with the Americans, especially in relation to the Cold War with the USSR, Stephens says the thinking in Whitehall was that Britain would be Greece to America's Rome. The Brits were experience­d and smart and knew how the world worked, so they could whisper sage counsel to US presidents.

In Stephens’ telling, this slightly delusional approach allowed complacenc­y to creep into British thinking. The country was slow to realise that the continenta­l countries were determined to push ahead from the 1950s onwards with their Common Market, which in turn became the EEC and now the European Union. This tardiness wasn’t all Britain’s making. French president Charles de Gaulle was suspicious of Britain, believing that when the chips were down, the UK prized its links with America more than its relationsh­ip with Europe.

Ted Heath steered Britain into the EEC in 1973, a move endorsed in a national plebiscite. Britain was back where it had been for hundreds of years before, acting as a balancing player on the continent. Membership of the EEC meant that as Europe grew stronger, Britain’s relationsh­ip with the US became stronger too, as America wanted at least one dependable ally in the bloc to convey its viewpoint.

From my own experience of attending EU meetings of foreign ministers, this was a distinct advantage to British membership. The British could always be relied upon to influence the US when internatio­nal issues became complicate­d. On the negative side, in many of the

‘All the time, British exceptiona­lism was bubbling under, along with an obsession over sovereignt­y’

drawn-out discussion­s, quite a number of European ministers and officials often concluded that Britain was a ‘voice puppet’ for Washington.

On one occasion where I was present, Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer praised his British counterpar­t’s speech with the putdown that “it would have been even better had I not heard the same message on my visit to the State Department in Washington last week”.

Tony Blair’s government attempted to moderate the American response in the fevered aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers in New York. Despite finally throwing in his lot with George Bush over the war in Iraq, Blair had exerted influence over US policy for the better, prior to this. The Labour PM, Stephens points out, was also keen to insert the UK into the single currency. Blair failed on this account because of his unpopulari­ty after the Iraq war, and the obstructiv­e behaviour of Gordon Brown, his rival and successor.

Britain’s decision to opt out of the euro led to a discernibl­e loss of influence around the European table. As a minister attending discussion­s in Brussels, it was surprising the extent to which British officials asked to be filled in on decisions that were now being taken at eurozone member level.

Philip Stephens’ belief is that UK foreign policy pre-Brexit had a decent architectu­re. America was on board for security, while Britain was also playing an active economic and political role in its backyard. All the time though, Stephens concedes, British exceptiona­lism was bubbling under, along with an obsession over sovereignt­y not evident in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and other EU member states. Stephens blames this relative disconnect on the absence of consensus about Europe across Labour and Conservati­ve politician­s, and he bemoans the tragedy that the public never appreciate­d the measure of Britain’s influence in Brussels.

Brexit differs from Britain’s other foreign policy choices since WWII insofar as the main decision makers were the sans culottes rather than the mandarins. Boris Johnson sensed which way the wind was blowing and got his reward, though now it falls to him to cope with the aftermath. Johnson has shifted the Tory axis to the left, which plays well domestical­ly, but does he really believe that he can put the ‘Great’ back into GB?

The EU worked for Britain because it enabled their food and goods producers, their profession­al services, and dynamic creative types to trade with Europe on a level playing field. Substituti­ng that opportunit­y with Commonweal­th nations and China will be very challengin­g,

Stephens hopes for the day when Johnson, and everyone else in Britain, realises that Britain will never again be a great power. Without that distractio­n, he believes that Britain can at least be a great nation.

 ??  ?? This Canadian stamp was popular in Ontario, perhaps less so in Quebec
This Canadian stamp was popular in Ontario, perhaps less so in Quebec

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