Philip Stephens of the Financial Times writes in the opening page of his new book, “Britain Alone”*, “The alarm was sounded by a distinguished British scientist, Sir Henry Tizard. Tizard had served during the war as a special emissary to Washington for Winston Churchill. His task had been to supervise the exchange of advanced military technologies, from airborne radar to nuclear fission. Tizard once made an Atlantic crossing carrying in his case blueprints for everyone of the nation’s secret weapons systems”.
He wrote in an official government minute: “We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall cease to be a great nation”. As Stephens himself remarks about the Britain of the last seven decades, “It’s a story of inflated ambition and diminished circumstances”.
But just as Tolstoy wrote in the opening of his novel, “Anna Karenina”, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so our present day family of nations are unhappy (or, less often, happy) in different ways. The United Kingdom is as unhappy –and as idiosyncratically so- as they come.
Reading Philip Stephen’s book, I come to the conclusion that my country is a strange one. Looking at its history since World War 2 one is unable to guess from year to year how the next year will be. Its political behavior is unpredictable, except when it comes to what some like to term the “Special Relationship” with the United States. Britain will do anything it takes to keep that privileged status intact. (But Britain supported the Confederacy in the Civil War. The French supported the Union.)
Stephens is a clever and insightful observer of this period of British history. As the chief political commentator of the best newspaper in the English–speaking world (it used to be my own, the International Herald Tribune, now subsumed into the New York Times) the influence of his columns and editorials reaches around the globe.
It is Brexit that has brought the failings of Britain into sharp relief. The British have allowed themselves to be pushed by a minority into leaving the club that brought peace to Europe after thousands of years of war to a state where the focus is on getting along together, concentrating on common, core, values rather than emphasizing differences that can be whipped up to a frenzied level by unscrupulous politicians, the likes of whom are probably with us for a long time to come.
The British think they are big enough and great enough to go it alone. They aren’t. It is simple as that- at least for most educated people, in particular younger voters. But the British have been steamrollered by nostalgia for greatness, wrapped up with very misleading arguments about the economy’s potential. This viewpoint, understandably, is held by many working class people whose economic circumstances are often meager, but also by older, much more affluent people, usually well educated who, to coin a phrase, should know better. Why this latter group swung against Europe is a conundrum.
Now Britain faces a period of rapid decline led by a prime minister, Boris Johnson, who unscrupulously and consistently has lied to the electorate on issues big and small. (As Hal Sonnefeldt said of Henry Kissinger, “he doesn’t lie just to protect state secrets, he lies because he doesn’t know any other way to be.”)
In no other European country would the highly educated (Eton and Oxford for Johnson, and much of his intimates in government similarly brought up) join forces with an alienated proletariat on an issue of such substance that transcends socialist, liberal or conservative loyalties. This is paradox number one of the many paradoxes Stephens highlights.
The other great misstep of the present age was the decision by the youthful, inexperienced, prime minister, Tony Blair, to observe the Special Relationship to the letter. He was, as one of his senior officials said, “star-struck” by President Bill Clinton. The Economist wrote cynically, “Britain has lost an empire but has at last found Tony Blair”. In order to have the ear of the Oval Office he was prepared most of the time to do Clinton’s bidding. He repeated the same bewitched behavior with Clinton’s successor George W. Bush. Expanding Nato up to Russia’s borders which Clinton started and has been continued by every president since, Blair helped sell. Yet no other single policy has done as much to destroy the entente with Russia that existed at the end of the Cold War.
Foreign policy was a foreign country to Blair and later his successors, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Someone snidely said these prime ministers thought foreign policy was sending home postcards of beach life from the place of their summer holidays. When necessary, they presumed, they could pick up foreign affairs on the hoof.
Unlike Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the time of the Vietnam war, Blair committed the country to fight alongside the Americans. It was a war the evidence and necessity for which Bush and Blair shaded beyond belief. Truth was not allowed to get in the warrior-leaders’ way. The electorate was deceived and has never forgiven Blair for it. Yet we mustn’t overlook that Blair won the votes of his cabinet, party and parliament to go to war, despite there being a fluent opposition in the persona of ex foreign minister Robin Cook. After his searing resignation speech, for the first time in its history, both sides of the House of Commons gave a member a standing ovation. Yet, paradoxically, the same parliament gave the green light for war. (That’s two paradoxes in one paragraph.)
A few words about some other revealing paradoxes that Stephens has dug up:
- After the defeat in the war with Egypt over the Suez Canal “Britain’s ambitions to remain the leading power in the Middle East had been shattered”. The Americans realized this gave an opening to Moscow. “Here was a recurring paradox of US policy. Even as it pressed Britain to roll up its empire, the US found itself obliged to step in as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.”
- Another paradox was Mrs Thatcher’s so-called Bruges speech. Many interpreted its sharp critique of Europe as her turning her back on Europe. Quite the reverse. She was very committed to Europe but one reason for her wanting to stay in the EU was so she could fight (she so enjoyed fighting) against those other members who wanted more socialist-like policies as well as movement towards a united Europe.
- When Thatcher co-presided with President Ronald Reagan over the collapse of communism, which was what in life she had wanted most, her magic wore off. “When it happened, it was the end of her.”
- Britain insists on keeping its own nuclear deterrent at the cost of severely running down its own conventional forces and making an end to nuclear proliferation that much more difficult. (As well as being a profoundly evil weapon if ever used, even in defense.) What could be more paradoxical and self-defeating than that? Yet every post war Labour and Conservative Party leader, apart from Michael Foot in the early 1980s, has argued for it.
- One more telling paradox concerns German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remark to Prime Minister Cameron when Cameron decided to call a referendum over whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU. As Stephens recounts, she observed, “How could a government that had routinely presented the EU as a nuisance, if not a direct threat to British nationhood, reinvent itself as a champion of European integration? Cameron, driven by political opportunism, had not thought through the contradiction”.
I have two caveats when it comes to giving this book full marks. One is the short thrift given by Stephens to President Jimmy Carter. He gave free reign to Andrew Young who had been Martin Luther King’s chief of staff, whom he appointed as US ambassador to the UN, to set out America’s stall for human rights, in particular to engineer a way to bring majority rule to Rhodesia. (Stephens should read a superb history, “Jimmy Carter in Africa” by Nancy Mitchel).
Carter is also the president who armed the Taliban and other mujahedeen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. This was a major factor in laying the kindling that erupted later into fire in the present day Afghani war, the longest in US history. Needless, to say, George W. Bush’s decision to bomb parts of Afghanistan to pieces was the other factor.
The second caveat concerns his too one-sided reporting on German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He comes across as a nuclear hawk. Indeed it’s true it was Schmidt who persuaded Nato to deploy in Europe a new nuclear missile system, the Pershing, an unnecessary one, that Schmidt argued would balance the Soviet Union’s new deployments. But later Schmidt was to write, apropos the deeply embedded culture of “nuclear deterrence”, an article strongly opposing it: “There is an enormous body of vested interests not only through lobbying in Washington and Moscow but through influence on intellectuals, on people who write books and articles in newspapers or who do features on television. It’s very difficult as a reader or a consumer of television to distinguish by one’s own judgment what is led by these interests, and what is led by rational conclusion”. This is one of the most clarifying observations of the nuclear bomb debate made by a leader who lived during the Cold War and its aftermath. It applies equally to Germany, the US and Britain.
This book is nothing short of brilliant. The blemishes are quite small, the sweep of the book majestic. The paradoxes, contradictions and confusions of British foreign policy are revealed in all their nakedness. All those whose ambition it is to be Britain’s future prime minister should read this book. Be assured Boris Johnson will not read it.
* “Britain Alone” by Philip Stephens, published by Faber in the UK in February and to be published by Faber in the US in May.