“Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves gone…In the name of God, go!”
Oliver Cromwell, the dissolution of the Long Parliament, April 1653
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 February. This is blast and I make no apology for it. Britain is broken and at war with itself. The utterly toxic Brexit debate seems now to be wholly dominated by extremists; Little Britons on one side, Remoaners who do not believe in Britain as a power or even a country, and Little Englanders on the other, who want foreigners out and long for an England that exists only in their nostalgia. The division is so deep, the country so divided that were this another age I fear Britain could be on the brink of a civil war. This week, lead Brexiteer Boris Johnson tried, in his way, to seek common ground, but probably only further entrenched the hatreds (yes, hatreds) that now exist on both sides of Britain’s polarised air waves. Why has Brexit come to this, what are the consequences, and what, if any, is the way out of this God awful mess?
Let me state something at the beginning of this missive which might surprise Little Britons who seem to think Britain is Lichtenstein-on-Sea without the money. According to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations Britain still possesses either the 5th or 6th largest economy of any state on the planet. The International Institute for International Studies also has Britain as the 6th biggest defence spender on Earth. If power is essentially a combination of economic, diplomatic and military tools then Britain should not be able to govern itself but also to exert real power and influence. Add Britain’s soft power, language and a tradition of power that stretches back centuries and Britain could continue to be a major force in the world if it wanted to. And yet, all that London exudes these days is weakness, retreat and decline.
Little Britons v Little Englanders
Why is Britain so divided? The contrasting profiles of the extremist Little Britons and Little Englanders who dominate the debate is illuminating. Little Britons tend to be younger and have been taught to despise patriotism, that Britain is on the wrong side of history, and seem only too happy to buy into the federalist propaganda of Promised Land, a new Utopia called ‘Europe’. They claim themselves to be ‘patriotic’, but in a very different way to Little Englanders and in support of another ‘state’. Nor is it their fault. For over forty years much of the elite Establishment (Westminster politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats combined), which also no longer believes in Britain (see my 2015 book Little Britain) has quietly engineered a retreat from British patriotism. This re-engineering of patriotism has also helped spawn a kind of illiberal liberalism that hates anyone or anything that challenges its utterly unworldly shibboleths, of which there are many.
Little Englanders are no better. They tend to be older and long for the days when Britain was either a superpower, or at least a ‘pocket superpower’ (a phrase I coined many years ago in a piece for the then International Herald Tribune). They reject the forces of globalism which are re-shaping the world. Impossibly, many of them want Britain isolated from globalism which Britain helped create, possibly more than any other state. Some Little Englanders are also quite often poorer than middle class Little Britons. For this group Brexit is a desperate cry from a group of people who believe themselves ignored and despised by a liberal elite Establishment which has for many years put the well-being and interests of the ‘other’ before them.
This weekend I will travel to the Munich Security Conference to take part in a high-level US-German event. The Berlin-Washington relationship is difficult, but essential. Indeed, given Britain’s spectacular demise it is today the only transatlantic ‘special relationship’ that exists in anything like substance. Yes, the Anglo-American intelligence and mil-mil relationship remains close, but strong? In the absence of a Britain willing and able to assert its interests or invest properly in the tools of statecraft across the diplomatic and military spectrum, or craft the policies of influence Britain will need as it leaves the EU, that relationship will become even more one of master-supplicant. Indeed, one reason the US-German relationship is so complex is precisely because it is one between relative equals. If the US remains a European power its equal within Europe is Germany. On Saturday, Prime Minister Theresa May will also be in Munich seeking to re-assure the audience that Britain is, and will remain, committed to the defence of Europe, as it should be. However, toxic Brexit begs yet another question: how can the defence of Europe be strengthened if Britain is broken?
Brexit has also revealed an elite Establishment that has also lost the will to power that has traditionally underpinned Britain’s security and defence effort. President Macron’s recent visit to Britain hinted at the strategic consequences of broken Britain. Whilst Paris drives a hard Brexit bargain behind the scenes President Macron is calling for the strengthening of France’s vital strategic partnership with Britain. The problem, Monsieur le President, is that if you and your Euro-mates succeed in humiliating broken Britain the will to power that is an essential pillar of European defence will, I fear, be completely destroyed. Yes, Britain will go through the NATO motions by cooking the books to pretend London spends 2% on defence, when it does not. However, this increasingly self-obsessed, self-loathing nation will have little interest or desire to defend those who many Little Englanders see as having helped to humiliate Britain ‘pour encourager les autres’. In other words, Little England could well become Little Britain.
Re-learning the Art of Power
Seventy years of managing decline, forty plus years of handing power to Brussels, and almost eighty years of trying to hang on to America’s oft capricious coat-tails, has emaciated Britain’s ability to exercise power, Or, to put it another way, Britain is incapable of thinking strategically for itself. Yes, Britain can build all the large aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines it likes, but if London lacks the capacity for leadership such ‘toys’ are neither tokens of power nor greatness. At the very least, post-Brexit London will need to re-learn the art of power. It is clear from the split in Cabinet and Parliament that some of the elite want to try, others simply do not believe it possible. This is dangerous. ‘Power’, or rather its absence reveals itself in extremis. As an Oxford historian and a strategic analyst of some modest note let me ‘un-reassure’ you; there will be a lot of extremis this century.
You see Extremis is where the rubber of leadership hits the hard road of reality. It was that capacity to lead in extremis which made Churchill a great leader in crisis. It is the lack of such capacity which reveals Theresa May’s inability to lead and which will condemn her to be one of Britain’s worst-ever prime ministers.
A New Britain?
There is no doubt in my mind that Boris Johnson is genuine in his desire to re-create a political consensus that would better enable sound governance. He said so in a speech he made this week on Brexit, albeit in that ever so BoJo way – part Churchill, part Groucho Marx. Unfortunately, he is simply the wrong man to mend my country. He is simply a representative of a failed political elite, a failed political generation that has led Britain into this sad place. It is a sign of the times that the choice I will soon have at the ballot box will be between divided incompetents and closet (and not-so-closet) Marxists.
The British people deserve better. As the opinion polls continue to suggest most British people – the unheard of and unheard from majority – simply want May to get on with Brexit. Maybe, just maybe, over the next fortnight May will finally take a firm position on Brexit and present how she sees Britain’s future relationship with the EU beyond the slippery clichés of the Lancaster Gate speech orthe begging platitudes of the Florence speech, which to my mind read more like May ‘running something past’ Brussels. If not, then I fear an uncertain May and her quarrelling ‘team’ will ‘lead’ Britain to the worst-of-all Brexit worlds: a half-Brexit, a Conga Brexit – half-in, half-out with little room for Britain to shake anything much about. On this I am with BoJo.
What to do?
Whatever happens post-Brexit (and hard though it is to believe there will be a post-Brexit) Britain will need to start again as a power. To that end, a new generation of politicians must be bought forward and quickly who are untainted by the disaster of Brexit. New leaders who can hopefully breathe some life back into the very ‘idea’ of Britain, before the waiting predatory nationalists and secessionists move again to tear the country apart. It is a re-start that cannot come soon enough. This future Britain does not need to be my Britain, but it does need to be need to be a Britain that properly understands the dangers of remaining glued to political decadence. It is political decadence which has driven London’s fantastical retreat from political realism and made Britain, Europe and the wider world very much more insecure places than need be.
At the very least Boris Johnson and Phillip Hammond, with his visionless ‘we only recognise as much threat as we can afford’ nonsense, must be cast into the footnote of history where they belong. PM May? For once, just for once, she must demonstrate she understands what ‘leadership’ really means by showing she has some idea of how to get Britain out of this bloody mess. Indeed, if she sits on the Euro-fence much longer she will not only develop rust, she will become permanently skewered, and my country with it. Her chronic indecision has exacerbated the division within the country and encouraged hard-liners in Brussels to believe that not only can they humiliate Britain, but as former British Euro-crat Lord Kerr suggested recently, bring Britain to heel, like some misbehaving dog.
Get Out of the Gutter, Britain!
Anyone of any political sense knows that Brexit is hard. It is made harder by a Civil Service that really believes the ‘sovereign will’ of the people to be wrong on Brexit. However, the real tragedy of Brexit is that had the Cabinet been even vaguely well-led, and ever-so-slightly more unified Brexit need not be anything like as hard as Britain’s ‘leaders’ have made it. In the political vacuum created by this lack of leadership extremist Little Britons and Little Englanders between them have come close to wrecking Britain as a power, possibly as a state, and even potentially as a society. The rest of us just look on aghast.
Britain today is a hollowed-out husk of a once Great Power that punches well below its weight in the world, led by a political elite obsessed with input-led, virtue-signalling, rather than properly upholding the responsibilities that power imposes. For those of us who, somehow, still believe in Britain Brexit has become a sadly all-too-predicted disaster. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why, in spite of my profound concerns about the drift of the EU towards soft authoritarianism, and having undertaken a detailed SWOT analysis prior to the June 2016 referendum, I decided that on balance Britain should remain in the EU. Still, I despair of those ‘we know best’ elite Little Britons doing all they can to destroy Brexit. What on Earth do they think they are doing seeking to over-turn a legitimate vote? If they succeed, just what kind of country do they think they will ‘inherit’? Whatever happened to that sound pragmatic application of Britain that once underpinned the ‘greatness’ of Britain? Not to mention those head in the sand Little Englanders who seem to want a return to the 1950s, and want it now!
Britain IS still a Great Power and, on paper at least, will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, a state can possess all the nominal economic and military power in the world, but if the elite Establishment is split asunder and unable to craft coherent policy and strategy then influence drains away like summer rain down a storm gutter. And, in my long-life, I have never seen Britain so firmly mired in the gutter as now. Sadly, that is what happens when people who do not believe in either an idea or the country they lead take power. For them everything is impossible, nothing possible.
One final thought, if Brexit means more of the utter irresponsibility on show from Honourable Members of the so-called Mother of Parliaments then perhaps Oliver Cromwell had a point! After all, Britain’s ‘sovereign’ Parliament, far from governing in the name of the people is simply the cock-pit where this new civil war is being fought.