In 1610 Lord de la Warr was named the first Governor-General of Virginia marking an initial step that took Britain to the largest empire the world has ever seen. Indeed, the state of Delaware is named after him. In 2010 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said that whilst Britain was still close to the United States the Special Relationship was dead. Buried within the gloom of Britain’s almost-depression is a much deeper phenomenon. The decisions that the new coalition government takes over the next six months could finally mark the definitive end of a four hundred year global British adventure that for better and worse has done much to shape the world. What then of Britain?
Britain has of course been in relative decline since the late nineteenth century with two world wars in the twentieth accelerating that decline into political and strategic free-fall. However, through the retreat from Empire a constant narrative has sustained the British. Britain it was said was Athens to America’s Rome, standing alone to hold back fascism in its finest hour or famously punching above its weight. Stunning political and military victories enabled the myth to sustain much of contemporary Britain, at least that part of it that Labour now euphemistically calls ‘traditional communities’. Conversely, the many political and occasional military defeat have been glossed over as tactical adjustments to the story of Britain’s greatness.
As retreat and decline have accelerated social cohesion has fractured and the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, first Ireland and now Scotland and Wales have sought to re-establish ancient freedoms as the gloss on England’s greatness has tarnished. Founded in 1707 with the Act of Union between England and Scotland and bound together through the mutual benefit of expansion the United Kingdom itself is now under threat.
Some would say it is honourable for such a once great country to seek retirement from the world stage and in any case modern Britain is such a rich cultural hub precisely because it has become a microcosm of the world it helped to create. However, to mask decline British leaders of all persuasions have sort to perpetuate the myth without funding it and this sorry deceipt of the British people is now reaching criticality. The consequences are apparent for all engaged on British foreign and security policy. Whitehall is clogged with meaningless directives, spin and management-speak. The once-superb diplomatic machine that was the Foreign Office is now serially underfunded, under-staffed and depressed. The armed forces that once bestrode the world are engaged on missions in support of an ungrateful American ally and duplicitous European partners that are sucking the lifeblood out of men and machines over-stretched, under-funded and ill-protected even as political leaders pretend otherwise often at the cost of lives.
So, where next for Britain? Here the next government has a choice for the impending cuts that so many in Britain seem determined to wish away. Greatness is forged in moments such as this when great leaders understand that leadership and ambition provide an inspirational alchemy that drives peoples out of adversity. For Britain that alchemy has always been found beyond its shores be it a force for Empire or a force for good or both. The next government therefore must make clear to Americans, Europeans and the emerging world and regional powers in the Commonwealth that whatever the financial challenges Britain is determined to afford greatness. That will require a grand strategy – the effective organization of large means in pursuit of large ends.
However, to do this will require an entirely new approach to foreign and security policy. Forty years ago the British led the way towards a fully professional military which stole the lead on the world and gave Britain a new form of power. Today, Britain must forge all its instruments of state into a new force under a truly National Foreign and Security Policy that is whole of government from top to bottom both in ethos and fact.
The goal? Strategic influence over the events that will doubtless impact upon Britain. Influence over Europeans who so often complain about Britain but who too often expect the British to bear too much of the pain for their security. Influence over new partners who share a particular bond and history with the British and who are now emerging onto the world stage. Above all, influence over an America that demands ever more of Britain but offers ever less.
Amidst the economic debris of Britain today is thus the making of a new greatness. Is Britain up to it? The alternative is a stark one. For it may be that Britain’s greatness which started in America is today ended by America. That would indeed be a tragic irony for such a great people…and so many Americans would agree.