hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 22 February 2016

Britain lost an Empire, but never found a Union

“Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”
Former US Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson,
West Point, 5 December 1962

Alphen, Netherlands. 22 February. Dean Acheson’s famous quote about a Britain strategically adrift seems particularly apposite on this wet, grey Dutch February morning. With the weekend decisions of the heavy-hitting Justice Secretary Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson to join the swelling ranks of the Brexiteers there is now a very real chance that David Cameron’s EU gamble will fail spectacularly on 23 June. If Britain does vote to leave the EU it will not simply be withdrawal from an institution to which it acceded in 1973. It will be the first time Britain has ever withdrawn from an international institution, and the first time its political and bureaucratic elite have had to THINK for Britain as a strategically-independent power since 1815.

Hold on a minute, professor, I hear you say. 1815? Really? Yes, really. My point is this; for much of the nineteenth century Britain was simply too powerful to have to think strategically. It kept an eye on matters European, and after the 1815 Congress of Vienna occasionally got ‘involved’ to maintain the power balance in Europe. Most notably, and not without irony, during the 1853-1856 Crimean War when Russia was (again) being uppity. However, for the most part Britain withdrew into splendid isolation and got on with ‘managing’ its enormous empire.    

Furthermore, with the principle of effective self-government established by the Australian colonies in the mid-1850s the later British Empire gradually began to take on the appearance of an international institution. Imperial Conferences were held regularly at which the Mother Country consulted the Dominions, and indeed some of the larger colonies on matters of ‘strategic’ import. That is why when the British Empire effectively ended from India’s seizure of independence in 1947 thereafter, much of the Empire morphed with relative ease into the Commonwealth of today.

Thinking strategically is the preserve of the relatively weak. As the balance of power shifted in the late nineteenth century with the 1871 emergence of a unified Germany and the later appearance of Teddy Roosevelt’s America as world powers, Britain’s elite had to begin to think about relative decline and the crafting of strategy. It never came easily to them.

The solution the British sought was to return to the principles of coalition or grand alliance which London had so successfully used against the French in the eighteenth century, and thereafter to extend the concept of imperial conferences to all states. The anti-German Dual and Triple Ententes would have been approved of by both Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger as coalition mechanisms for the balancing of power in Europe. The League of Nations and its successor United Nations would have been recognised by the likes of Gladstone and Disraeli as extensions of the concept of imperial conference.

The problem with the early European institutions for the British elite was that by the very principle of their founding they were neither an imperial conference nor a coalition. In particular, the very idea of ‘ever closer union’ ran counter to the idea of a British-controlled or inspired assembly. Worse, they were not invented by the British. The British can very reasonably claim that the League of Nations, the United Nations, and even NATO were all British ideas. The European institutions were patently not.

Therefore, from the very outset the EU, and its now many forebears, presented a dilemma, and indeed represented a contradiction, for the British. On the one hand, a ‘not invented here’ institution had been created on the Continent that by the very nature of its Franco-German leadership side-lined the British. Indeed, the early EU (ECSC and then EEC) did unto Britain what Britain had done to continental powers since 1815. On the other hand, the European institutions were institutions.  By the 1950s whilst Britain maintained totems of great power Britain's foreign policy Establishment only really ‘did’ institutions, which became ends in and of themselves for British foreign policy.

Peer beyond the typically-astrategic Cameronian smokescreen of last week’s failed ‘renegotiation’, most of the tenets of which will be swept away by the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, and two abiding British problems become clear. First, the EU has never been a British institution, and as such far from magnifying Britain’s power and influence it has diminished it by subordinating London to Berlin and Paris. Second, as an institution the EU does not really work.

Indeed, it is now clear that the process of partial-supranationalism that began with the 1991 Treaty of Maastricht and reached its zenith/nadir with the 1997 Treaty of Lisbon has failed. Moreover, the very process of big-Brussels building has at one and the same time eroded democracy in Europe, and by preventing the creation of flexible coalitions of any strength, also destroyed effective crisis management.

Equally, if Britain gives up on the EU now that too will have profound consequences. Indeed, if Britain leaves the EU in 2016 it will be the first time since, say, 1588, that England/Britain has withdrawn from the shaping of strategic political events at the heart of Europe at a critical moment. Indeed, the very real prospect now beckons that by sending troops to defend the Baltic States, and ships and aircraft into the Mediterranean to attack Islamic State and people smugglers under a NATO banner, Britain will be instrumental in creating a ‘safe’ space for others to decide the future of Europe, and thus Britain.  

2016 Europe stands at the most strategic of strategic crossroads – more elitist European institutionalism or more national coalitions of the willing and able? Come 2023 and a new Treaty of European Union will need to be ratified which will address such issues. That is after all what Jean-Claude Juncker himself has said. If the draft treaty proposes ever more power to Brussels Britain’s ‘constitutional lock’, which is now enshrined in law, would automatically trigger another referendum. Therefore, if Britain is indeed to leave the EU surely it would make more sense when the future strategic direction of travel of the EU has been established, and the scale of the threat posed by the likes of Russia and IS is clearer? After all, good strategy is not just about good thinking, it is also about good timing.

In other words, were the British thinking strategically they would realise what an opportunity is now afforded them for influencing the profound re-adjustment the EU and its member-states must make in the midst of the Eurozone, Russia, migration, and terrorism crises. Britain’s EU moment is thus NOW as Britain’s concerns are now shared by a majority of people on this side of the Channel. However, Britain can and will only influence Europe’s coming re-adjustment if it engages in the institutional process and injects strategic thinking.

So, why does Britain NOT think strategically? Institutionalism and short-termism. In my 2015 book Little Britain ( I emphasise the extraordinarily lamentable quality of what passes for strategic thought at the heart of government in London. One reason is that the Establishment is so enmeshed in the incrementalism of institutions that they have lost the ability to think big and think strategically which on paper should come naturally to the leaders of a top five world economic and military power. Another reason is that 'strategy' has been remorselessly reduced to what is politically feasible on any given day.  The fact that the British Establishment produces strategically-lightweight political spin gurus such as David Cameron as 'PMs' is testament to these problems. Indeed, perhaps the biggest danger Britain faces comes not from Brussels at all, but rather the poor quality of its political leadership. Indeed, would the British Establishment be up to the challenge of leading a strategically-independent Britain?

Like all decent strategic analysts I have shifted my position on Brexit in light of events. To that end, Dean Acheson said one other thing about the British that is worth recalling. “The qualities which produce the dogged, unbeatable courage of the British, personified…by Winston Churchill, can appear on other occasions as stubbornness bordering on stupidity”.  I am no fan of the EU and I share many of the concerns of reasoned Brexiteers. Indeed, the time may well come when the EU is so inimical to Britain’s interests, so costly, and so crisis incompetent that Britain will be forced leave for the sake of all.  2016 is, I fear, not that moment.  

Julian Lindley-French  


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