The British are a self-critical lot when it comes to thinking about their national interests. Normally this is fine – it can even be an advantage. But when self-doubt tips over into something closer to self-loathing it becomes more of a vice than a virtue, and an impediment to serious strategic thinking. Beware the following ‘seven deadly sins’ that undermine our thinking about the British national interest:
1. ‘To think about national interests is to hark back to a bygone age.’
The first sin is the knee-jerk association of the British interest with ‘empire’. Ironically, the people most likely to hang onto an outdated notion of the British Empire are not – despite the accusations – the ones who are enthusiastic about the national interest, but rather those who are most uncomfortable with the notion. Calls to ‘bring back the empire’ are vanishingly few compared with the larger number of articles, speeches, and rhetorical attacks that use ‘longing for empire’ as a way to smear or de-legitimise anyone who talks about a successful future for the United Kingdom (UK), or any future except as a passive, isolated and insular nation. Even some Global Britain sceptics acknowledge that there are far fewer pro-empire thinkers in British politics than is often imagined.
The weaponisation of the history of ‘empire’ is selective, referring only to bad parts like racial hierarchy, economic exploitation, political oppression, cultural chauvinism, and so on. The spirit of going out into the wider world – enterprise and exploration – are seldom acknowledged.
There is no escaping the fact that Britain had an empire; however, it has very little to tell us about how to envision and secure the national interest today and into the future. Harking back to empire as a way of knocking the idea of pursuing the British interest is self-indulgence: good for virtue signalling but irrelevant as part of a serious policy debate.
- Resist lust for moral purity.
2. ‘Britain is a power in decline.’
Like all ‘-isms’, declinism is an enemy of clear thinking because it places one factor above all others in a way that is more normative (signalling that is how things ought to be) than intellectually honest or politically practical. Socialism, for instance, goes beyond a recognition that there is such a thing as society, to insist that society should be the central issue for political understanding and action. Similarly, declinism is more than an objective acceptance of relative or absolute decline in terms of material resources and capacity – it is a mode of thinking that insists that decline is the dominant characteristic of our national status. It says decline is our destiny and should, therefore, shape our actions.
There is a dangerously seductive kernel of truth within any -ism. Declinists can always accuse their enemies of being naive or irrationally in denial about Britain’s global standing. However, this sin is easily avoided by simply enlarging the context in which any single factor in relation to the UK’s global role is evaluated.
- Do not envy the past.
3. ‘We should accept Britain is now a small and unimportant country.’
This is a way of thinking related to the cognitive phenomenon of ‘relative deprivation’, where emotions stem from regret for what has been lost, rather than what Britain is blessed to have. For instance, a millionaire might be envious of the fact that they used to be a billionaire. They are more melancholic than the every-day person who inherits a million pounds.
Apply that analogy to contemporary thinking about Britain’s place in the world: the country is among the top five economic, military and cultural powers in the world, but it is glum because it has fallen down from number one. Now imagine how different a middling country would feel if it suddenly rose to be in the top five? That is how Britain should feel. The correct comparison is not with the UK of the past, but with other countries of today.
- Ignore greed for long lost status.
4. ‘Britain is an international laughing stock.’
The UK’s post-Brexit discourse has emboldened a type of commentator who revels in the notion of national humiliation. The peculiar thing about humiliation is that it is self-inflicted — something someone feels only through the projection of how they think others see them. The word ‘humiliator’ is seldom used because the successful humiliation requires complicity from those who would be humiliated. However much one power may try to humiliate another, the target can only be humiliated if it actually feels and acts as if it were humiliated.
At times like this when British politics is undergoing a once-in-a-generation constitutional transformation, the turbulence can be unsettling. The course may not be predictable, but the process has been channelled through legal and peaceful action. Heads are being cracked this year in the streets of Moscow, in China – even in Paris and Barcelona. But not in London because the political system is working. This is a time to keep a sense of proportion, trust in common sense, and resist the hysterical temptation of internalising a self-image that does not serve the British interest.
- Do not let pride cloud strategic thinking.
5. ‘Globalisation has made national interests obsolete – Britain has to be multilateralist.’
Half-digested postmodernist notions about power, meaning, and theories of globalisation have led some to deduce that because national identity is ‘socially constructed’, national interests do not matter. According to this perspective, global problems cannot be solved by a single country acting alone. The idea of the ‘national interest’ must therefore be obsolete and unworthy of consideration. This narrative has been given a new normative twist since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald ‘America First’ Trump, in which nationalism (bad) is cast as the opposite of multilateralism (good).
Far from being in opposition, multilateralism is merely a tool for advancing the national interest; a logic expressed very clearly by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France – none other than the co-founder of a new ‘alliance for multilateralism’ – who clarified in his inaugural speech that France sees Europe as ‘the instrument of our power and sovereignty’.
As long as states remain the dominant actors in global affairs national sovereignty will continue to be the building block of international cooperation and the source of legitimacy for collective action. Under conditions of globalisation, all states look to minimise friction between internal and external political systems by pursuing assertive and adaptive modes, depending on respective strengths and weaknesses. A clear appreciation of the national interest is thus vital to that process because it is both starting point and yardstick for success in striking the right balance.
- Avoid gluttony – it leads to intellectual indigestion.
6. ‘Talk of the national interest is “elitist” and “right wing”.’
Probably as a residue of the leftist internationale tradition, identifying or advocating pursuit of the national interest is sometimes seen as a preoccupation of the ‘right wing’ – with the implication that this is problematic. Perhaps because political orientation, authority and class are so deeply connected in the British imagination, this form of populism seeks to identify advocates of the national interest with an imagined ‘elite’, as opposed to a ‘left’ that professes to represent the interests of everyone, everywhere.
Great exponents of the national interest in British history – such as Clement Atlee, the post-Second World War Prime Minister – also come from the left. Today’s left tends to adhere more to ‘progressive’ ideas and attitudes – in which Sins 1, 3 and 5 are trigger points – within which anything that privileges the ‘national’ is suspect and may even betray a taste for cultural discrimination, arrogance, or hegemony.
In fact, one of the best things about the nation, the nation-state and the national interest is that it represents all citizens equally, regardless of political preferences.
- Do not succumb to wrath towards fellow citizens.
7. ‘Britain’s relationship with Europe is at the heart of the British national interest.’
‘Europe’s security is our security’ says the 2018 ‘National Security Capability Review’, but this is an over-simplification. Hanging onto the assumption of the centrality of Europe – a popular form of geostrategic myopia – is the final deadly sin.
In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis, three essential elements of the British interest were identified as overlapping in Europe: deterring the main threat (the Soviet Union), developing post-colonial era economic prospects (through European integration), and adding value in terms of the strategic focus of the United States (US) (containing global communism, mainly from within Europe).
This no longer the case. While geography dictates that continental Europe will always be an important economic and strategic element of Britain’s strategic policy, contemporary trends suggest the European theatre has ceased to be the ‘key terrain’.
First, the post-Soviet Russian threat to the British interest – while not trivial – is no longer central. Second, there is no power outside of Russia in Europe with the means or inclination to threaten the UK, yet Europeans are able (if the choose) to defend themselves without much help – including by deterring Russia. Third, the Indo-Pacific region has become both the locus of global economic dynamism and the priority theatre of Britain’s strategic ally, the US. The triple overlap has moved eastwards.
The conclusion: if Global Britain’s interests are shifting then there is a need to rebalance resources and adjust to the new geostrategic context. Devote one third to Europe (trade and the Atlantic alliance, with an emphasis on maritime roles), one third to the Indo-Pacific, and one third to global public goods (upholding norms of sovereign equality and non-interference, and so on).
- Cast off slothful thinking.
In 2016, the ‘Leave’ campaign sailed to referendum victory on the back of a promise to ‘Take back control’. The slogan has been much derided. ‘Anti-Leavers’ quickly rallied to ask awkward questions: Did these people not realise that a post-Brexit United Kingdom (UK) would have less geopolitical clout? That Britain would still have to ‘take rules’ from Brussels (and other powers) if it wanted to trade with them? Was it not just a cover for Leavers’ real motives: racism and xenophobia? In this framing, the Brexit referendum became a choice between an insular (and outdated) national politics on the one hand, and an outward-looking globalism on the other. According to this view, ‘Leave’ voters chose isolationism in a world that is growing ever more inter-connected: in short, they were on the wrong side of history.
Yet this dichotomy – national versus supranational – is a simplification. It has made debate over Brexit more polarised than it needs to be. The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ can be narrow and isolationist; it can even be a cover for English ethnic nationalism. But these are not the only explanations for why the message resonated with millions of voters in 2016. Some of these voters were committed English nationalists, but most were not. For them, ‘take back control’ tapped into a looser sense of political exclusion from a supranational elite; a sense of some level of political control having been lost in the process of globalisation. They wanted to be part of something larger than themselves – to be citizens of ‘somewhere’, as opposed to Theresa May’s notorious ‘nowhere’. But is that greater entity necessarily a nation state? There are other ways that gap can be plugged.
Suspicions of a loss of control in a globalising order have a longer and more sympathetic history than ethnic nationalism. The hopes and fears of ‘Leavers’ may be better understood not by turning to nineteenth- or twentieth-century jingoism, but rather an earlier tradition: the ‘country’ or civic republican thinking which shaped British politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Discussion in this period revolved around the problems of balancing the geopolitical and economic advantages of the financial revolution, with concerns that power might become too concentrated in the hand of an impenetrable elite. Individuals associated with the English ‘country’ or classical republican tradition were deeply suspicious of the new order. Quentin Skinner has described the civic republican mentality as concerned with ‘freedom as non-domination’, while John Pocock places greater emphasis on the participatory side of the republican ideal, which called for politics to be built on civic virtue. Understood in these terms, the suspicious language of civic republicanism bears at least a passing resemblance to much ‘Leave’ rhetoric, and points towards some polemical strategies that might be used today. Perhaps renewed emphasis on a participatory, civic politics is the best remedy to the perceived loss of community which accompanies globalisation. It is an idiom which has the potential to both take seriously ‘Leave’ concerns and avoid ceding intellectual ground to the far right.
The particular forms of globalisation in the twentieth-first century are new, as is its scale. Yet the experience of the world feeling suddenly larger and more complicated is not. In 1719, three hundred years ago, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, his most famous work and well-known contender for the title of first English novel. Mr Crusoe, who sets sail to seek his fortune at sea in spite of warnings from his superstitious family, proved immediately popular with the reading public. His adventures captured something of the spirit of a new age. The Bank of England had been founded as a private joint-stock bank in 1694, new credit-based forms of finance were on the ascent and Britain was fast becoming a powerful trading empire. New opportunities abounded, encouraging Mr Crusoe’s real-life equivalents to take to the seas in pursuit of commercial reward.
But new opportunities were accompanied by new dangers. Like Mr Crusoe’s voyages, the financial revolution was not all plain sailing. In 1720, stocks in the South Sea Company – artificially inflated by speculation – crashed. The burst bubble ruined numerous shareholders and caused disruptive ripples in in the wider economy. It was a moment of reckoning for London’s political elite, prompting a parliamentary inquiry and much pamphleteer soul-searching. For many long-term sceptics of new finance, this was a vindication of all their fears.
The hopes and fears of ‘Leavers’ may be better understood not by turning to nineteenth- or twentieth-century jingoism, but rather an earlier tradition: the ‘country’ or civic republican thinking which shaped British politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
By 1720, jeremiads against credit-based finance were well-established. The financial innovations of 1694 to 1720 were closely associated with the court Whig elite who had gained access to power since Protestant King William III toppled Catholic James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. So-called ‘old’ or ‘country’ Whigs, critical of their erstwhile Whig allies who had now accepted court patronage, and Tories, who felt excluded by the new order, warned that new systems of credit were a threat to liberty. Their warnings drew on a classical republican ideal, in which liberty was founded on civic virtue. This was a political philosophy which placed great emphasis on the need to have a stake in society. Landowners were the guarantors of liberty. The landowning citizen’s desire to preserve their own independence would translate – so the theory ran – into a desire to protect the liberty of the whole.
Threats to liberty in this worldview came from excessive centralisation of power in the monarch. If too high a proportion of the political classes became dependent on royal patronage, the independence of the gentry would be compromised, and with it the liberty of the nation. In the 1690s, William III’s desire to keep a standing army in peacetime was a particular focus of classical republican protest. Classical republicans preferred the idea of voluntary militias; property owners could then fight for their own and their country’s liberty, without a permanent land force threatening coercion from the centre. The army was a threat, insisted classical republicans, because it could be used to take away liberties, even if William, a ‘virtuous’ prince, was not himself planning any moves in that direction. As John Trenchard, a leading ‘country’ Whig polemicist, wrote at the height of the crisis in 1698:
If this Army dos not inslave us, it is barely because we have a virtuous Prince that will not attemt it; and ‘tis a most miserable thing to have no other Security for our Liberty, than the Will of a Man, tho the most just Man living.
If the dominance of the court was a concern, the rise of a financial class trading in credit seemed to classical republicans an even more unsavoury prospect. Like Machiavelli’s fortuna, credit was represented a woman, flighty and unreliable. It turned property from something stable and solid into something vague and intangible. As Jonathan Swift put it in The Examiner in 1710: ‘Power, which, according to the old Maxim, was used to follow Land, is now gone over to Money.’ Those who dealt in credit could be wealthy and influential, but this wealth was not fixed in one place. Its owners’ loyalties could not be guaranteed in the same way that those of the landed class – whose wealth tied them down to Britain and British interests – could. Land was patriotic in a way credit-based commerce was not. The critique was a powerful one. Campaigns for liberty against court corruption and the murky, intangible powers of high finance shaped political discourse throughout the eighteenth century.
Britain has a chance to position itself as a defender of civic independence, interested in international connections but aware too of the power of the local.
Yet, as historians such as Julian Hoppit and John Brewer have emphasised, it was also clear to many that the financial revolution offered great benefits. Court Whig propagandists hit back, emphasising the need for a standing army to defend British liberty against hostile neighbours. Credit in the form of public debt could help win wars, as would become increasingly clear as the century wore on. ‘The national Debt was contracted in Defence of our Liberties and Properties, and for the Preservation of our most excellent Constitution from Popery and Slavery’, wrote an anonymous pamphleteer in 1733. Some hoped that a strong commercial presence might obviate the need for Britain to go to war at all: the cooperative sociable nature of trade – the ‘doux commerce’, in Montesquieu’s famous phrase – provided a new model for international relations based on peaceful exchange.
Mr Defoe built his career as a polemicist on an effort to emphasise the compatibility of commerce with liberty. For many years, this secured his place in the canon of founding fathers of liberalism. But the ‘court Whig’ narrative developed by Mr Defoe and his political paymasters was as much republican as it was liberal. For them, participation in commerce could be an act of civic virtue. The propaganda armoury of eighteenth-century court Whiggism rested on such claims, in which a true citizen must have a stake in and contribute to society, but such a contribution might be made through trade. It could even be made by participating in polite conversation at the local coffee-house. Discourses of ‘politeness’ and ‘manners’ were used to extend the range of activities that might be counted as virtuous; importantly, though, they were not intended as virtue’s replacement.
For the political thought of the eighteenth century, the relationship between liberty, virtue and commerce was a source of continual debate and fascination. This was no straightforward dichotomy to be drawn between defenders of domestic liberty and the proponents of Britain as an outward-looking trading power. Instead, political thinkers of all parties found various accommodations between liberty and property rights, virtue and commerce.
Today politics is once again dominated by conflict between the dictates of intangible transnational financial systems and continued suspicions that such systems may be little more than a cover for tyrannical seizure of long-guarded liberties. ‘Leavers’ – rather like ‘country’ Whigs – are often accused of being inward-looking, focusing too heavily on domestic considerations. They are frowned on for emphasising abstract concepts like liberty at the expense of the consideration of real power in the international arena. But those making such accusations should note the powerful hold that such ideas of liberty had and continue to have in British thinking. The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ is easily derided, as Mr Defoe easily derided the opponents of the standing army. But as he also recognised in his earlier age of expanding horizons, the best arguments for participation in global commerce will find ways to build in a defence of liberty and civic ties closer to home too. In our own age of post-imperial politics, Britain has a chance to position itself as a defender of civic independence, interested in international connections but aware too of the power of the local.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.