“Having left the European Union, the UK has started a new chapter in our history. We will be open to the world, free to tread our own path, blessed with a global network of friends and partners, and with the opportunity to forge new and deeper relationships (Boris Johnson, Foreword to the Integrated Review, March 2021).
The mantra that we will be liberated from Europe to go out into the world is a dangerous fantasy. We will not be reclaiming our sovereignty, we will simply be alone (Simo Schama, the Financial Times).
The ancient Greeks visited the oracle at Delphi to seek the essence of wisdom. All were told the same message “know thyself”.
This advice is relevant not just to individuals but to countries like our own. Who are we? Where have we come from? What have we learned in that process? What are our strengths and weaknesses? What are our values? What is our appropriate role in the world after Brexit?
Our past perhaps poses more problems of adjustment for us than for our European neighbours. Who can forget our imperial past and the glorious victories achieved. For most of our neighbours, by contrast, the past was a history of defeats and indeed occupation when many of the old landmarks were swept away. By contrast with our “sceptred isle” Germany and Italy had only achieved nationhood in the nineteenth century.
In 1945 after the second world war we emerged triumphant but exhausted financially. We then played a leading role in the foundation of institutions which exist today – the UN, NATO, the Bretton Woods Organisations – and nationally gained prominent positions such as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
By the mid- 1950s we boasted that we were at the centre of several concentric circles – Europe, the Commonwealth, the wider world – and did not have to make a choice between them.
Then in 1956 came the reality check of Suez – a turning point in our relations with the USA. We were a nuclear power but reliant on the USA for our nuclear capability.
The process of decolonisation went remarkably smoothly after the bloody partition of the Indian sub-continent. But we had missed the European bus. That movement to integration culminated in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. We vainly tried alternatives such as EFTA. In vetoing our application to join, President de Gaulle, with great prescience, referred to us as a great “insular” people. Eventually in the referendum in 1975, by a two to one majority, we voted to remain in the Community which aspired to “an ever closer union”.
Meanwhile in the late 1960s we had, for financial reasons, been forced to abandon our “east of Suez” policy and to recognize our role as a leading European power – and over forty years membership our foreign policy was moulded increasingly by close relations with our immediate neighbours – we became a bridge between the US and Europe; a gateway to Europe for trade and investment by third countries.
We bought many other advantages to the table – a member of the Permanent 5 of the UN Security Council, a leading member of NATO and the Commonwealth, a highly admired diplomatic service and military power with many questions over our competence in Iraq and Afghanistan, ( particularly in Basra and Helmand.) We are at or near the top of the league table of soft power exponents with the British Council, the World Service of the BBC and prestigious universities and we are blessed with the English language. This year in June we have the presidency of the G7 and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in November. We also co-host the Global Partnership for Education in July.
And yet, and yet, the post war period may be seen as a period of transition, of painful adjustment to a new role. We are not a Norway or a Canada mainly relying on soft power. Nor are we in the premier division of world powers but perhaps at the top of the championship! We need alliances. Falklands was a magnificent success but that was the last of our independent military operations.
Perhaps some clue as to the success of our adjustment may be seen in the publications in March of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It is of note that the Prime Minister introduced the Review to Parliament without even mentioning the European Union. The dog which did not bark. We try to ride two horses, trade and values in our policy to China. The key change is to be the “tilt” to the Asia Pacific – is this an echo of the old East of Suez policy? Is there any basis for example that India can in any way replace even partially the European Union? Does India even welcome such a role, or Japan and Australia? Is it credible to threaten to use nuclear weapons against states who launch a devastating attack using “emerging technology ”. The stockpile of nuclear warheads is to increase by 40% (from 180 to 260) – a negative example to others and possibly against our international obligations. Is China impressed by our proposed sending of our new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea? In pursuit of the dated concept of sovereignty we are prepared to downgrade our key alliance with our Euro-Atlantic neighbours; is this evidence of a certain nostalgia for a past role?
It can be cold outside a close alliance, not least in the reduction of our bargaining power and the loss of a protective shield when under pressure from enemies. We have forfeited trust by our readiness to abandon our international legal obligations over Northern Ireland and by the reduction of our aid to developing countries from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Investment.
These and many other questions about our role remain. In particular, are we yet prepared to see ourselves as others see us and are we now ready to “know our-selves”.
Written by Rt Hon Lord Anderson of Swansea
Rt Hon Lord Anderson of Swansea is a Labour Life peer who has sat under this title in the Lords since 19 July 2005. He is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament in recent years.