Britannia Contra Mundum

Not necessarily the end of the world.


Britain, according to Mary Riddell writing in The Telegraph, is the friendless pariah of Europe.

Riddell informs us that our economy is in the doldrums, our foreign policy is a shambles and we are actively alienating the very people who we need to come riding to our rescue:

…the issue of Britain’s global influence should preoccupy every parliamentarian.

Our current position is not hard to plot. Hiding under a duvet of doubt and debt, Britain – so recently the buccaneer of the world – has become insular to the point of agoraphobia. Recession and hardship at home have made the UK a nation of political navel-gazers. The cost-of-dying debate, over whether we could possibly justify the cost of our wars, has been superseded by a cost-of-living crisis: gas bills have supplanted gas masks.

According to this defeatist and self-flagellating line of argument, it is Britain, the weak country, which needs to curry favour with her European neighbours, and not the other way around. Apparently it has gotten so bad that as a nation we are now suffering from some kind of identity crisis:

But inward-looking politics are bolstering, rather than reducing, Britain’s identity crisis. With power ebbing away abroad and the spectre of Scottish independence at home, Britons are wondering: who are we?

This comes as news to me, and probably to many other people who feel comfortable in our national identity and don’t feel the need to vex themselves with recurring thoughts of national inferiority or separatism.

I seem to remember urging against this type of declinist, pessimistic, self-defeating talk only very recently in “Why Britannia Rules”, but my small backwater blog has clearly made no impact on the mood of feeling in the British commentariat. As I said then, when everyone was tearing their hair out and prophesying the end of Britain after Parliament voted against military action in Syria:

We are British. We are a great country. Our economy may still be in the toilet, and we may be governed at present by dilettantish non-entities in the mode of David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, but these things shall pass. And when they do, Britain will still be a great country.

What I wrote was true then, and it is true now. But this is where Mary Riddell really loses the plot:

With dangers abroad and our economic destiny far from assured, it is imperative that Britain should re-establish its identity and global niche. The irony is that our best hope is the one that politicians hesitate to flaunt, and that many citizens revile. The EU remains the largest single economy in the world, has the second biggest defence budget after the US and boasts the diplomatic muscle recently used by its (previously maligned) foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, in helping to secure the recent Iranian nuclear pact.

In what precise way has Britain lost her identity? Did this happen while I was sleeping?

The EU may indeed remain the largest economy in the world, but it is not the “largest single economy”, as Riddell and anyone with the slightest knowledge of current divergent conditions in Greece and Germany knows all too well. Whether we swoon with delight over our membership of the European Union and ever-closer union with our continental neighbours or chafe at the smothering bureaucracy of the whole project and yearn to leave, we still trade with the EU. And contrary to the shrieks of some scaremongers, even if Britain were to leave the EU, this trade would cheerfully continue by necessity and mutual benefit. Some unscrupulous commentators phrase their warnings in such a way as to leave the impression that all of Britain’s trade with Europe would cease and disappear in a puff of smoke if we were to leave the EU, a ludicrous and obviously nonsensical notion.

And are we really going to start talking national defence as a reason to lash ourselves ever tighter to the mast of the European Union? The EU may have the second biggest defence budget after the US, but this is a meaningless fact when you consider the obvious fact that the member states of the EU do not act with one common military purpose. Indeed, of the EU member states it is really only Britain and France that possess any capability to project significant force without airlift or blue water navy support from the United States. Furthermore, Britain’s military actions in recent years have primarily taken place either through NATO or in concert with our chief ally, the United States. It is hardly as though we would be putting any much-loved and time-tested military partnership with the Europeans at risk by disengaging from the EU, as no such partnership exists.

We are then supposed to believe that Britain is in danger of severing  herself from some great source of “diplomatic muscle” as a result of our ambivalence about Europe. But I could well point out that weighing against Riddell’s one example of EU foreign policy success (Baroness Ashton’s help in securing the recent Iranian nuclear pact) are the many times when other powers have looked at the incoherence or tense nature of European joint foreign policy and either laughed at it, rudely dismissed it or used it as an opportunity to divide and conquer.

Then comes the obligatory “but of course there are a few small issues that need ironing out” remark in reference to the EU’s many flaws, together with the standard plea to refrain from throwing the baby out with the bath water:

While no one doubts that reforms are needed, EU membership makes us an influential part of the largest global trading bloc. As Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, and Ian Kearns write in their new book, Influencing Tomorrow, the EU is “not just an instrument for amplifying our power, but also for promoting peace and security and defending democracy and human rights”.

I can only despairingly repeat (as though to a brick wall) the fact that Britain, as one of the world’s few truly indispensable nations, would remain strong and secure whether or not we are an “influential part of the largest global trading bloc”. Indeed, I would further argue that we are not, have not been and are unlikely to become as influential as we should be within an EU structure which gives veto power to countries which are relative minnows or which have strongly divergent interests to Britain’s, and that by freeing ourselves from the yoke of so much European regulation and counterproductive harmonisation attempts we would have the potential to soar higher and achieve even more. But Mary Riddell seems too afraid of the world and too doubtful of Britain’s enormous advantages and assets to ever acknowledge this possibility.

None of this is to say that the right answer is for Britain to leave the European Union under any and all circumstances. It is just to point out that there needn’t be such a bone-chilling fear of secession and the idea of Britain standing on her own two feet like so many other sovereign nations manage to do. It is partly this fear that colours and undermines our relationship with the EU, and makes the current raw deal that we get from our membership a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our European partners believe that we are desperate to remain a part of the club at any price, the price that they are certain to demand and extract from us in each and every nation will be that much higher.

So rather than running into the arms of the EU in a scrabble to find identity and protection, as Riddell advocates in her less-than-stirring peroration, we should actually embrace some of the insularity (if we must call it that) that so many of the commentariat class seem to scorn, at least in terms of our approach to the European Union.

In order to prosper, Britain must look inwards at ways to release our own inherent national dynamism and competitiveness, rather than outwards for reassurance and protection in a world which will surely offer neither.

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