It was late 19th century British prime minister Lord Salisbury who lazily pondered that his foreign policy was to drift casually downstream casting an occasional boathook to the river bank. But when you are in command of a quarter of the world, a fifth of its population and a third of its economic output, you can get anyway with such shoulder-shrugging government. Not now.
Or so you would think. Paris suffers its second terrorist assault within a year. Three hours flight from London, Putin seizes Lebensraum out of Ukraine, ISIS bulldozes a caliphate out of Syria and a biblical exodus drowns in the Mediterranean. Europe’s reaction has been beyond feeble. Powerful states to which the world would once look to provide leadership, shun it. The ‘not our problem guv’ shrug seems now to come from Britain, a country with the military, diplomatic and global clout to make a difference.
Whilst Cameron increasingly frames the crisis in terms of ‘security’ he fails to enunciate his vision of how the UK should, if at all, step up to the plate. This vacuum gives the media free reign to forget the big picture and frightens the very middle-ground Brits Cameron needs in order to win his referendum into turning their back on a situation that appears insoluble. Worse still, Cameron’s foot-dragging also irks the very allies the UK needs to get the renegotiation prize needed to persuade those switcher voters.
But it is no surprise. Britain is going through what one diplomat kindly called a ‘period of soul searching’ but which others might see as an identity crisis. It is nothing new. In 1962 Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State, famously laid it bare: ‘Britain has lost an Empire and is yet to find a role’. Just 22 years after the ‘finest hour’ this was a bitter pill from our closest ally. But a policy of managed decline followed, ending only (apparently) in the Falklands and the hubristic Blair wars.
Now Britain is asleep. Whitehall’s appetite for Britain to pose as a moral or any kind of leader in this triple whammy crisis has evaporated. Cynics might see the ghost of Neville Chamberlain telling the public not to worry their pretty little heads about far off countries about which we know little.
It needn’t be this way. The sad truth is that people are looking for a Churchill in the room and are finding it empty. Last year a Chatham House survey saw 65% of Brits demanding that Britain steps up to its responsibilities. 62% of them in our British Influence survey wanted Britain to be seen as a leader in Europe. But a coherent foreign policy narrative is absent. Britain’s clout in Europe is nixed by the renegotiation. Our clout in America falls with every defence cut. Selling stuff to the BRICS and the commonwealth is, well, just about selling stuff.
Britain is punching way below its weight. Faced by a continental ring of fire, the beef of other countries is that they don’t get our government’s pussyfooting. This is all the stranger since, on July 14th, an index of “soft power” —the ability to coax and persuade—ranked Britain as the mightiest country on Earth. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but this country finds itself with a tremendous range of institutions and relationships in politics, diplomacy, the military, economics, science and culture, often amassed over generations, which give it a great deal of clout – if only it were used. But dots are not joined, the public are kept in the dark and the clamour is to slam the Dover door shut.
We need to recognize that the referendum represents the first time the British people have been given a choice about the path our country will take in the 21st century. This is a choice between the United Kingdom and Little England, quite literally. A country that has liberated Europe with its blood and helped civilize Europe with its values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law is a critical player in the politics of the world’s richest continent. If we leave, it is more than conceivable that Scotland will then vote to leave Britain, Wales would threaten to leave England and Northern Ireland would face erecting a razor wire fence along the border with the republic for the first time. For certain, we would face a constitutional unravelling that could end up with England alone.
The alternative is for the UK to embrace a new vision of leading in Europe together with our allies. It should seize it.