“Everything has changed, completely changed: a terrible beauty is born.” Whether or not the Easter 1916 rebels deserved Yeats’ grim tribute, the impressive courage of the Ukrainians certainly does. This changed the world situation and Britain’s role.
What if the Ukrainians had been quickly defeated, as Putin (and many Westerners) expected? What if “valiant little Belgium” had accepted that the German armies cross their territory in August 1914 to defeat France? In both cases, Britain mostly encouraged the resistance. If Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Corbyn had been Prime Minister, or if Asquith had followed his instinct in 1914 that “there seems no reason for us to be anything but spectators”, the future would probably have been very different. . Perhaps better, or less badly: people subjugated, but less killed. But alternate pasts are as unknowable as alternate futures. And now we have taken the bold step of offering defense guarantees to Finland and Sweden.
This is a completely unexpected consequence of Brexit. The contrast with the EU, and so far with the United States, is stark. This says a lot about our future security strategy and our relationship with the continent. It proves that Britain has not, as Remainers happily predicted, been marginalized. This shows that European security is not a purely European matter, but requires the participation of outside states – a principle which Britain has consistently pursued since 1914 and which since 1949 has been institutionalized as NATO. The alliance is clearly not, as Emmanuel Macron claimed in 2019, “brain dead”, but it does have the major handicap of its two largest continental states, France and Germany, which are dragging their feet to political and economic reasons.
Britain’s new active role confirms the opinion of Cambridge international relations scholar Professor Brendan Simms that Britain is Europe’s only truly great power and one of the main guarantors of its security – an opinion that not so long ago seemed distinctly eccentric. Are we finally rejecting the decline that has crippled Britain’s international role for half a century, and reduced it from leader to willing follower?
Boldly moving across the Baltic would have amazed Palmerston or Gladstone – no shrinking violets. The Navy tentatively clashed with Russia in the Baltic during the Crimean War in 1854, and London was prepared to send a fleet to protect Copenhagen in 1864 in the unlikely event of the Germans attacking it. We gave an empty guarantee to Poland in 1939. But never have we ventured so far east to offer security as we do today.
Of course, we can only do this as a leading member of a powerful and – hopefully – cohesive alliance. As a relatively small country, we have always needed allies, and cultivating alliances has been an essential part of our politics for centuries. The only time it failed – in 1778 – we lost an empire.
But who today are the great allies we can trust? Not, sad to say, France or Germany. So are we relying primarily on the “Anglosphere”, as many Brexiteers have advocated – including the present writer? In the long term, probably yes. The concept of the “Anglosphere” underlines the importance in the 21st century of the links of history, culture, law and economic interests. In a world so intertwined by modern communications, yet where promiscuous “globalization” has spawned new perils (most obviously from China), relationships on a global scale with like-minded peoples have become vital.
An “Anglosphere” is not exclusive. It should be the solid foundation of broader relations with willing European countries, of which the Scandinavian and Eastern European states are currently the most important, and their Asian counterparts, currently or potentially threatened by China: Japan ( Britain’s first ally in the 20th century), Taiwan, South Korea.
But in the short term, who can ignore the internal divisions and “culture wars” that separate the oldest democracies – including ourselves of course? New Zealand and Canada seem quite far into synthetic guilt and self-loathing. Biden’s America is a less than strong ally for anyone. India is plagued by sectarian strife and its never-ending cold war with Pakistan. And us: will the United Kingdom still exist in a few decades?
Politicians, diplomats and commentators naturally emphasize the short term and the political scum. Fortunately, deeper institutional relationships linger beneath the surface, especially in the current context those between the intelligence services and the armed forces of our allies, which are highly integrated. The Aukus agreement between Australia, Britain and America underlined this. But significantly this did not include New Zealand.
Cultivating political, economic and security ties with these allies and potential allies should be the first concern of any British government. But is it? Why – as Australian diplomats and politicians have recently stated so bluntly – has Britain been reluctant to strike trade deals with our friends and natural economic partners? Their view is that UK officials, lobbies and timid politicians have preferred to maintain ties with EU suppliers rather than diversify our sources of supply.
For example, we import 280,000 tonnes of beef from the EU annually, but our new trade treaty with New Zealand keeps tariffs high and only allows 12,000 tonnes. This policy does not protect UK farmers and certainly not UK consumers as food prices soar. It primarily protects Irish and European farmers, with unrestricted and privileged access to our market for their expensive and often factory-farmed products. We made ourselves dependent on food imports from the EU through a few pinch points – our equivalent of Germany’s reliance on Russian gas. The government has therefore been much bolder with Moscow than with Brussels, which since 2016 has rejected any practical proposal for managing the Irish border, and which dismisses harsh rhetoric from Britain as a bluff.
Today President Macron proposed a “European Confederation” which we could graciously be allowed to join. Gullible commentators presented this as a bold new vision, and even as a concession to Britain. It is in fact France’s ideal European system, which it has been praising periodically for a good forty years.
This means an inner core of the eurozone dominated by France and Germany – what Macron likes to call “sovereign Europe” – with rings of satellites stretching to the edges of the European sphere (Norway, Turkey , North Africa, Great Britain…). The satellites would be drawn inexorably into the orbit of the EU core, over which they would have no control. This is the ultimate reiteration of the subordinate status the EU has been trying to impose on Britain since 2016. It would take extraordinarily naivety to fall for anything worse than EU membership. It would also smooth the way for the escape from Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Our security, both strategic and economic, requires us to be global. This has been our trajectory since the 18th century. De Gaulle said it when he kept us out of the Common Market: we were “at sea, linked by trade, markets, supplies with the most diverse and distant countries”. Europe is one partner among many, and our back door. We will help keep it locked down by helping countries that want to be our allies to defend themselves. We would even provide, in extreme circumstances, intelligence, naval and air support. But we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into an inefficient EU-based system that has repeatedly shown itself at best indifferent to our interests, most obviously in Ireland. Our front door faces west and our main road is the ocean.