Since the 2016 referendum on the future of the United Kingdom’s (UK) membership of the European Union (EU), the prevailing belief has been that the country will return to ‘normal’ once either side – ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ – prevails. The Remainers hope that once they have triumphed over those who sought to leave, the UK will go back to being a relatively prosperous and sensible EU member. Leavers, meanwhile, believe that the UK will prosper and excel as soon as it has escaped the ‘cage’ of European integration. Both of these perspectives are fundamentally mistaken. For beyond this debate, there is an overlooked but longstanding struggle at the heart of British thinking on foreign and defence policy, which has existed since the drawdown from empire.
George Orwell saw this nearly eighty years ago as he penned The Lion and the Unicorn during the height of the Second World War. In this essay, Orwell turned his fire on two groups, which he seemed to hold responsible for failing to prevent the conflagration. These took the form of the right-wing patriots – the ‘Blimps’ – and the left-wing intelligentsia – the ‘Highbrows’. To no small extent, Orwell thought the two groups fed off one another: the ‘purely negative’, ‘querulous’ and ‘defeatist’ Highbrows emerged in the vacuum created by the Blimps’ inability to provide the moral and intellectual leadership necessary to renew and direct the nation in the aftermath of the First World War. Orwell saw a way out of this problem: he believed the need to defeat Nazi Germany would force the Blimps and the Highbrows together, to the extent that patriotism and intelligence would merge.
Alas, far from joining them together, the Second World War – and the resulting decline of British global power thereafter – may have even facilitated their further divorce. Although the structural constraints of the cold war forced the UK into a specific posture, the underlying Blimpism mutated into national isolationism, while the defeatist ideology of the Highbrows morphed into what might be called ‘compensationism’. Believing that the UK lacked the power to uphold its own interests, the isolationists thought Britain’s focus should be at home rather than overseas. The recent interventions in Iraq and Libya have only strengthened their conviction. For the compensationists, Britain is filled with malice and error. They favour a ‘more humble’ international approach. This does not mean they lapse into isolationism; rather, it means they tend to support measures designed to overcome perceived injustices, such as the provision of Official Development Assistance, which some even see as a form of ‘reparations’ for past British transgressions – with colonialism, slavery and pollution chief among them.
Since the end of the Cold War, the isolationists and compensationists have been joined by a third group, which may now be even more influential than both. This group is animated by what might be described as ‘globalism’. Mesmerised by neoliberal economic theory, the globalists believe the nation-state is outmoded and that the UK should fling open its borders and markets – even to countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. As adherents of the liberal peace theory, globalists believe that by constructing and expanding a global economy, the world will become more orderly and prosperous, with ‘global governance’ being the logical conclusion of their endeavours.
The underlying Blimpism mutated into national isolationism, while the defeatist ideology of the Highbrows morphed into what might be called compensationism.
What is significant is that each perspective shares a peculiar and idealised vision of the nature of international relations, of which they see peace as the default setting. The isolationists believe that peace is ‘normal’: once the UK leaves other countries alone, it will be left alone to prosper. The compensationists also believe that peace is ‘normal’: once the world’s injustices – which they see as the ‘root cause’ of conflict – are overcome, the world will revert to harmony. Likewise, the globalists also place their faith in the idea that peace is ‘normal’: once humanity starts to think like ‘citizens of the world’ and less like citizens of particular nations states, division and disorder will be overcome.
However, with the rise of Russia and particularly China in recent years, each of the competing perspectives has started to face structural dislocation. The isolationists are beginning to discover that others will not necessarily reciprocate their isolationist approach. Like powerful authoritarian regimes in the past, both Moscow and Beijing know full-well that successful political unions like the UK – with its open democratic political system and liberal culture – pose a direct threat to their own existence. Indeed, the advent and spread of new communications technologies in recent decades has only amplified the threat: it allows their people to see inside the UK and its democratic allies in a way that the repressed peoples of the Soviet Union or the Third Reich never could.
Similarly, the world the compensationists see is no longer dominated by the West to the extent that it was during or before the 1990s, while the injustices they focus on – colonialism, slavery, and so on – are fading from living memory. At the same time, many developing countries are proving that the so-called injustices were never an impediment to national progress to begin with (South Korea has moved in fifty years from being one of the world’s poorest and least stable countries to being one of the richest and most stable, while enormous strides have been made across Africa and Asia).
As for the globalists, their vision of the world is looking increasingly misconstrued. As the UK and other Western democracies provided the financial investment needed to help countries like Russia and China become more prosperous, their authoritarian regimes have not liberalised but have become increasingly repressive and revisionist. Neither Russia nor China are becoming ‘responsible stakeholders’ in the rules-based international system in the way globalists had hoped. To the contrary, the authoritarian powers are even establishing competing orders, such as the Eurasian Union or the Belt and Road Initiative – both attempts to redraw the geopolitical map. And by opening up their economies – as the globalists advised – to foreign investment and technology, democracies like the UK have become ever more vulnerable and dependent.
Britain’s attempt to withdraw from the EU has become so intractable because the adherents of these visions have dug in, just as the perspectives themselves have begun to fall apart. Until new thinking emerges, nothing will change. Even if the UK manages to withdraw from the EU, it will still remain trapped in a conflict of the three groups’ making. Equally, if the UK remains inside the EU, the problems will not go away. We need to rethink the UK’s international role, and focus our attention on the future.
Britain’s attempt to withdraw from the EU has become so intractable because the adherents of these visions have dug in, just as the perspectives themselves have begun to fall apart.
This is why The British Interest is needed. Almost 80 years after the publication of The Lion and the Unicorn, patriotism and intelligence must still be brought together. Our contributors will not have all the answers, but they do hope to offer – from a range of standpoints – new thinking on foreign and strategic policy to help the UK navigate the more dangerous and competitive world of tomorrow. We are not hostile to internationalism, but our focus will always be on how to improve the well-being, prosperity and security of the British nation.
The British Interest will offer a range of formats. With our commentaries, we will offer rapid responses to international developments with new insights. With our essays, we will provide a platform for the detailed analysis of strategic issues and trends. Our interview series will allow us to probe the ideas of politicians, officials and prominent scholars to prise out in more detail their views and perspectives, while our ‘Standpoints’ will allow our contributors to challenge dominant assumptions and established ideas. Finally, our Telegram series – kindly supported by the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge – will allow historians to analyse the long-term implications of historical events that matter to the UK.
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