Ever since the end of the British empire, some of us British have been pondering and picking over the question of what is our place in the world. For the British, it is so much part of the condition of being British that for the most part we don’t realise we’re doing it and, when it’s pointed out to us, we assume that it’s simply part and parcel of having a national identity. But it’s not. And our obsession with it says something about us. As our Parliament merrily implodes before our eyes, the question is coming back again but in the end the answer may be surprisingly banal.
Of course, it is not uniquely British or even slightly uncommon to think about one’s country’s relations with others. Citizens in all countries should do it. And thinking about one’s country’s place in a region is also pretty common and proper.
But thinking about the country’s role in the world – with the exception of a couple of megalomanic national leaders, it is only the powerful, the fast-rising and the relatively recently ex-powerful who can find the topic even vaguely relevant. In Britain’s case, having had the habit for a couple of centuries, it’s proven next to impossible to break for the last half-century.
The expenses scandal
Like others, I guess, I have been doing my bit for British angst recently because of the revelations from The Daily Telegraph - a right-wing daily paper – about the way Members of Parliaments have been scamming their expenses, exploiting a stupid system in stupid ways. If you want to read details about how MPs have played fast and loose with identifying one residence as their first home and one as their second, so they could do up the second home on expenses then “flip” it back to being their first home, or about MPs using their expenses for buying a floating duck island for their pond or for repairs to their castle’s moat, then go elsewhere. I can’t bear the details any more. It is so silly and so sordid.
And by the way, if you are reading this and are not British and the scandal hasn’t been covered in your national news media, let me tell you that what I have referred to are real cases and not the worst ones.
The most worrying thing about all this is the risk that people will be so sickened they will turn away from politics in droves. Given that possibility, it is truly heartening that there is a palpable sense of anger about this. People are livid.
The Economist (22 May) comments that Britain has lost a lot over the last century or so – economic dominance, military might, sense of superiority – but at least we thought we had a parliament that was worth something. Now it seems we don’t. Does this tell us something new and uncomfortable about Britain’s place in the world? Seems like it should.
The reason why it seems it should is because we think people in other countries care, because we think they regard us British differently, because in fact we are different, which means we should be listened to more than others, so that we have special influence, and thus a power that by other indicators (wealth, force etc) we don’t deserve. It’s the dream of punching above our weight.
Parliamentary and public scandals in Italy did nothing to affect Italy’s standing in the world. Choosing a clown as prime minister has had some effect but not much. We British know that. But it will be different with us, we are all quietly thinking. It goes very deep in our national psyche, in our education institutions, in our news and entertainment media, in our political and financial institutions.
It is not so much imperial nostalgia – though it often seems to take that form – as an imperial hangover, for which the best cure sometimes seem to be “the hair of the dog (that bit you)” – i.e., getting a little bit drunk again might ease the pain.
In the lead-up up to the G-20 summit in London in April, Prime Minister Gordon Brown headed off round the world as an international statesman. We can argue all night about whether he did so primarily to shore up his very weak position in domestic UK politics or primarily in order to get agreement at the G-20 for the decisive action to be taken that the world economy needs. Behind or underneath that dispute over motives there is another deeper truth: for a British leader it is axiomatic that he/she can play that world-leading role.
Of other countries of similar size and wealth, only in France do we see the same kind of pretensions for power. In both countries, leaders can sometimes pull the trick off and sometimes fall flat. In France, Chirac could, and Sarko managed it last year but this year has been flapping around a bit; in the UK, Blair managed it for a few years then fell flat, and Brown just about got away with it at the G-20.
Even on the left in Britain and in the peace movement, where you would think the logic of Empire would be most deeply rejected, but even there you could for a long time see widespread symptoms of this hangover. One of the commonest arguments for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s – the first heyday of the anti-nuclear movement – was that Britain could lead the world by moral example.
The special relationship
As the realities of imperial decline began to sink home, when surviving World War II put the country deep in debt to the US and was followed in quick time by stepping smartly away from the imperial role in South Asia and the Middle East, one of the first temptations was to think about a special world role, a uniquely British world role. If we couldn’t be the hegemonic world power, or even really be an independent major power, perhaps we could be the sage counsellor advising the US – their youthful energy, our worldly wisdom. Most Americans were either dumbfounded or quick to patronise or both when they ever encountered British politicians seriously claiming this “special relationship.” Some US leaders have been polite and kind and have referred to the special relationship but the idea that it ever worked so that Britain consistently influenced the US to shrewder, cleverer policies was always cock-eyed. Much of the rest of the world merely chuckled – some cruelly, some indulgently – but chuckle-worthy the spectacle distinctly was.
In its most recent form, Tony Blair surrendered his premiership and his judgement to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and held American coat-tails on their way into Iraq. A government that had begun by emphasising ethics and legality in foreign policy was six years later playing Tonto in a war with no basis in international law.
But we put that straight, didn’t we? Remember Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister in Love Actually, standing up to the American President because he (the Pres) had just made a pass at the wrong girl? The President uses the press conference to affirm the special relationship between the two countries and the Prime Minister takes the opportunity to disown a relationship that has turned bad and is about little Britain being bullied. That showed ‘em!
Dream on. The unsurprising truth about the relationship between the US and the UK for over 60 years is that power flowed one way and only occasionally the British position on an important issue has led to modifications of US policy.
For those commentators, analysts, policy-makers and citizens concerned about international politics for whom the “special relationship” was always an illusion, there have been and remain essentially three alternatives.
Two of them draw deeply on the same drink that got us the imperial hangover in the first place:
- An independent world role: forget it: the country’s not rich enough, powerful enough etc; won’t happen.
- World moral leadership: forget it: the country’s not rich enough, loved enough, etc; won’t happen.
The third still has a bit of that empire juice in it but is also much more realistic, but unfortunately unpopular in Britain:
- A leading role in Europe: was complicated for a long time by Britain being a late comer to the European Union. Now much more feasible – the UK is one of the biggest economies and its population is growing so its weight in the EU will increase; meanwhile the old Franco-German axis is wobbling and the new EU members from the east don’t like it much. The trouble is that the British population, media and body politic remains largely Euro-sceptic – not phobic for the most part though that tendency is there too and is strong – but even scepticism makes real leadership difficult. Plus, it would be a role as leader with others, not sole leader.
Get over it
The truth is that, with all its flaws but also its many strengths that do not get much discussed in British news media, the EU is the necessary arena for UK international policy. If Britain is to have any kind of role, it is as part of the EU where, indeed, the country’s wealth and population size give it the potential to play an important role and an increasingly important role over the next half century. But to embrace this role, the British polity needs to simply get over Empire and its pretensions and after-effects and move on.
If we can get over it, moreover, and if international policy gets focused onto playing to our strengths rather than our pretensions, Britain does have some considerable contributions to make to world politics. And some of them are paradoxical products of the long concluded imperial role.
Britain does have a large and capable foreign service that not only has extensive representation in other countries but plays a major role in key international institutions. In international development, the Department for International Development is a major player because of the scale of development aid it disburses and a thought leader because of the resources it has invested in policy, research and analysis. It is not as influential as it sometimes likes to think but a very significant player nonetheless. The Commonwealth is an association of countries from all continents and of great diversity that offers networks for developing common understandings that can carry political weight if properly used. The BBC is a global cultural institution that commands a considerable degree of respect and means that Britain has an abiding cultural influence that remains surprisingly extensive. The fact that English is the main international language gives Britain some unfair advantages in diplomacy and communications.
And the scandal?
I started thinking about all this again because of the Parliamentary expenses scandal. But I don’t think I come to any conclusion about the scandal because of it, or to a scandal-related conclusion about Britain’s place in the world.
What has come out in the expenses scandal reflects a deep-seated malaise in British politics, but no real harm for the world, nor even for the EU. We, the British people, have got to get this straight because we need democratic, accountable, responsible government – not because we have any international responsibility in the matter. And we need not only to straighten up how MPs’ expenses are handled but several other aspects of our parliamentary institutions – but that’s because we need them to be functional, not to set any kind of example to anyone else.