Many politicians are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim”
Is Britain fit for its new-found ‘freedom’? Do either the British Establishment or the British people realise just what “Global Britain” will demand of them? What should British power be for – soft and hard? On the face of it at least, Britain remains a very powerful actor. The Henry Jackson Society’s Audit of Geopolitical Capability even has Britain as the world’s second most powerful state due to what it calls “…a broad spectrum of capabilities” Sadly, for Britain, power is about so much more than mere statistics and the Jackson assessment fails to consider the broad spectrum of vulnerabilities from which Britain also suffers. Britain is also locked in a strategic culture war of which Brexit is both part and consequence.
Furthermore, Britain was a very different place in 1973 when it entered the then European Economic Community. Indeed, for all its myriad of economic and social problems Britain was still a power of some heft in the world. Almost fifty years on Britain is at best a medium weight regional strategic power. Consequently, Britain’s departure from the EU far more than a mere institutional re-alignment. It is the abandonment of community for anarchy that will demand of the British very different kinds of leaders and a markedly changed mind-set about the relationship between law and power. Is Britain up the challenge of such a transformation? Is Global Britain anything more than a ‘BoJo’ wet dream?
Anarchy versus Community
Most states beyond Europe exist in anarchy, a state of nature in which power rather than law is pre-eminent and which is euphemistically called the international system. For as long as the democracies were at the pinnacle of relative power the nature of that anarchy was tempered by legal instruments in the form of treaties. However, with Europe’s values-led civilianistic welfare states retreating in the face of interests-led security states such as China, the very nature of the international system is again changing. Lexpolitik, the application of legal power in international relations is once again being eclipsed by Machtpolitik, the primacy of the strong over the weak.
Even the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, is often more at ease with Machtpolitik than Lexpolitik. Historically, much of the American Establishment has seen treaties as mere instruments to enshrine the leadership of the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ and its manifest destiny. In other words, treaties were for ‘lesser’ powers. This view is reflected in the mistaken American belief that both World War One and World War Two were in effect European civil wars fought between inherently aggressive European states, rather than a struggle between early democracy and classical and radical autocracy. President Trump has taken such a world view one step further by importing the transactional business anarchy from whence he came into US statecraft. This is why he is far more comfortable with Russia's President Putin than Germany’s Chancellor Merkel who exists in German legalism, at the other end of the power-law spectrum.
Contemporary Britain has long confused values with interests. Tensions over the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill are but the latest iteration of a struggle for the purpose and method of policy. Almost all the parliamentary rebels opposed to the bill were lawyers who believe international relations should be ‘rules-based’, i.e. governed by treaties and laws. Moreover, the entire Brexit negotiating process has revealed an essential tension between an EU, which sees everything in legalistic terms, and a Britain just beginning to realise what stark policy choices is must confront as it re-enters the ‘world’ in which the likes of China, Russia, Turkey and the US are used to operating. In such a world Britain’s magical ‘soft’ power counts for little if nought. The problem is that law without power is not worth the vellum it is scribed upon, and over a long period the relationship between law and power in Europe has become ever more estranged, as though power itself is the problem from which Europeans must protect themselves. The result is self-evident today in the sovereignty deficit from which Europe suffers and its precipitous strategic decline.
One reason the Brexit negotiations have been so taut is because they ultimately concern two contending views of how Europe and the world should work. Indeed, under Theresa May even Britain’s negotiators shared the EU world-view. For the European Commission power must be enshrined in law that it both controls and interprets. This also affords the Commission real power in what will ultimately become an existential battle with the EU member-states it purports to support and yet seeks to supplant. For Dominic Cummings, the eminence tres-grise of this particular Administration Brexit is thus not only about a struggle for power between what he sees as two sovereign entities, but also about the nature of power itself. For the negotiations to succeed Britain has to successfully convince the Commission that it is indeed a sovereign equal, whilst for the Commission the very idea of a European state being its sovereign equal is anathema.
Managers versus statesmen and women
Another essential challenge Britain now faces concerns the nature of those in charge. After almost fifty years in the EU Britain is governed by technocratic managers, many from a legal background. What it needs are far more statesmen and women. Any candidates? Prime Minister Johnson makes political capital out of his hero Winston Churchill. However, Churchill belonged to a different age and a different Britain. By historical and strategic standards Britain’s contemporary political leaders are lightweight. They cut their political teeth in the post-Cold War age of Brussels when the method for political gain was influence in Brussels, or if not blaming the self-same Brussels for their many mistakes.
Such political fecklessness has been aided and abetted by an under-resourced Whitehall High Establishment plagued by political appointees in the form of Special Advisors or SPADS. The result is a kind of political gridlock in what far too much importance is placed on the 24 hour news cycle protecting ministers from their own folly, and far too little on dealing with weighty issues. It is as the whole Westminster/Whitehall bubble has become a giant machine for kicking difficult issues down a seemingly never-ending road. Contrast that with Britain’s political and practitioner elite a century or so ago which was much more focussed on the problems of Empire and a balance of power with other states in Britain’s favour within the anarchy of the international system. In other words, big stuff, whatever one thinks of it by contemporary standards.
Such imperatives necessarily reinforced the need for statecraft – the relentless and considered application of state power over time and global space in pursuit of the national interest. At the core of British power was also an elite civil service that routinely spoke truth to it and had the acumen and abilities to so do. Now? For much of the twentieth century Whitehall has necessarily had to manage Britain’s relative decline whilst the political class has pretended it was not happening. Indeed, Britain’s joining of the then EEC was part of that process. Since 1973 with Britain in the ‘Community’ the main focus of Whitehall has been managing Britain’s influence in the EU. For all the importance of the US, NATO and British security and defence policy, what matters to politicians is domestic policy. As Bill Clinton once famously said, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’! It still is.
The consequence has been the steady abandonment of the statecraft and the big strategic thinking for which London was once known for the penny packet daily EU interactions of Brussels, allied to the Blair-led penchant for strategic virtue-signalling. Such process has placed a particular premium not only on good lawyers and policy managers, but spin doctors. Indeed, spin seems to have become ‘substance’ for much of Britain’s political elite. Today, the very managers charged with the shift of Britain from European legalism to global powerism are people who, by their nature, simply do not believe in the mission. Several government lawyers resigned this past week claiming they were doing so out of principle because a state like Britain does not break international law. Nor, ideally, should it. However, behind their high principle is a much more fundamental issue of power. The shift from community to anarchy will undoubtedly see lawyers loosening their grip on both Westminster and Whitehall. Or, at least, it should. The very idea of lawyers ‘managing’ anarchy is oxymoronic. Proof? The emergence of the Machiavellian Dominic Cummings to pre-eminence…for however long he lasts.
Britain’s abandonment of community for anarchy also has near home consequences. It has certainly fuelled profound tensions with the Republic of Ireland over the inner-Irish border. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which brought a cessation to the armed struggle was, given the circumstances, clever statecraft. It was also a fudge and to maintain peace it must continue to be so. Clause 2, Section 1 (iii) of the GFA is clear: until and unless the people of Northern Ireland decide otherwise Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK and thus two regulatory and sovereign entities will continue to exist on the island of Ireland. There is no question that because both Britain and Ireland were EU member-states the issue of the border retreated. However, anyone who remembers ‘bandit country’ during the Troubles knows what a dangerous demarcation it was, particularly in places like South Armagh. A new fudge had been negotiated in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement but that is now also being questioned. Dublin has every right to be exasperated but what it is powerless in the face of a power struggle between London and the European Commission in which the GFA is now mired.
Ideally, there should be a democratic ‘border poll’ to settle the now/again contested issue of sovereignty. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom is sufficiently fragile that London cannot afford to accidentally legitimise a second Scottish independence referendum. Equally, the Commission can also not escape blame free for it has undoubtedly sought to exploit this issue to weaken the political bonds between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to demonstrate to all member-states the price they would pay if any of them dared follow Britain’s lead and move from community to anarchy. Whilst the European Commission is not an enemy of Britain, it is no friend.
Test of power
Britain is thus facing a profound test of power. It would be nice to think the forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR 2020) would at least acknowledge such a test. It would also be encouraging if there was some effort to establish how Britain’s tools for security, defence, development and foreign policy could be re-forged into a strategic implement for leveraging national influence. An indicator of any such strategic ambition would be a much beefed-up National Security Council.
The need for such unity of strategic purpose and effort is not just to enable Britain to better compete in an anarchic international system. Britain is also fast losing influence in the two ‘communities’ that continue to afford Britain some influence – the UN Security Council and NATO. Unless Britain begins to better match words with committed forces and resources then it is hard to see how London can over time retain the influence it still just about has in either institution. The French are still manoeuvring to ‘relieve’ Britain of the post of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (DSACEUR) in NATO. This is hardly a surprise. A weak Britain will find it particularly hard to remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) if it no longer has the military power to fulfil its security responsibilities. The UNSC is neither a retirement home for the strategically infirm nor an executive committee of the UN. The good news is there is still some evidence Britain can face that test. London’s support for Ukraine is important and so-called ‘ferret missions’ to test Russian air defences suggest a willingness to be robust in the face of aggression still exists.
Britain: Between community and anarchy
Global Britain 2021 will need to demonstrate that it is no longer Global Britain 1921. First, Britain must finally escape the clutches of imperial nostalgia. Second, London must move to position Britain as an important, modern regional-strategic European power, even as it leaves the EU. Third, London will need to re-learn the art of statecraft and generate the power to demonstrate Britain’s continuing importance to other Europeans and Americans. Fourth, the British world view will need to be both hard-headed and reasonable, built on a philosophy of liberal realism that avoids any repeat of the naïve globalisation that successive governments foisted on Britain and which opened the country up to a myriad of avoidable vulnerabilities. London’s creation of a new groupings of like-minded democracies in the form of D10 is a first step in the right direction. The alternative is a dark one. Unless effectively led there is the very real prospect that a combination of Brexit and COVID-19 will finally kill Britain off as a power, if not Britain itself. London is trying to pull off a complex extraction from a complicated community whilst constitutionally-compromised (Scotland), mired in COVID-19 debt and led by an elite establishment the massive majority of whom do not believe in the mission.
For almost fifty years Britons have grown accustomed to the comfort blanket afforded them by both the EU and NATO. Britain has left the EU and unless Europeans reinforce NATO it is hard to see how an over-stretched America can carry the Alliance for much longer. At least illusion is about to be stripped away and Britain will be forced once again to either swim in anarchy red of tooth and claw, or sink. There is a wider danger. Britain still matters. If a democracy with the power and weight of Britain performs poorly on the international stage, or is even dismembered, the balance of power between the civilianistic and militaristic powers will shift rapidly and markedly towards the latter. No pressure then, London.
What should British power be for? British ‘statecraft’ must reflect an uncomfortable truce in the strategic culture wars between the Machiavellian entropy of Dominic Cummings and his ilk and Westminster-Whitehall’s can’t see the strategic woods for the tree-by-tree processors. As Britain shifts from community to anarchy lawyers must accept that law without power is simply virtue-signalling indulgence, whilst the likes of Dominic Cummings must understand that power without law is the not only the antithesis of parliamentary democracy, but a threat to its very survival. Ultimately, for a state like Britain power and law must merge. In concert with democracies the world over Britain’s continued aim must thus be to endow rules-based international relations with sufficient power to enable it to prevent the worst excesses of might and constrain and shape those that seek to subvert it. In other words, the very purpose of British power is to uphold the rules it helped write and outside of the EU Britain will need significantly more hardish power to realise such an end. Only time will tell if Britain sinks or swims. Only time will tell if Britain’s elite is up to the challenge? How much time has Britain got?