Winston Churchill once famously described Britain’s role in the world in the aftermath of the second world war in the form of three interlocking circles: the Empire-Commonwealth; Europe; and the transatlantic “special relationship” with the US. He wanted his country to exercise influence in all three circles, as well as use its privileged position in each of them to act as a bridge and broker of international diplomacy.
Sixty-five years after the end of Churchill’s second premiership, and with the Brexit process now formally concluded, the debate about the UK’s place in the world is once again top of the agenda. From politics to punditry, think-tank wonks to academia, there is much speculation about how visions of a “global Britain” will play out in practice.
The UK government has promised to reveal more in the expansively titled “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”. Against this backdrop, and the present angry mutual misunderstandings on both sides of the Channel, the publication of Britain Alone by FT commentator Philip Stephens could not be more timely.
In his study of UK foreign policy from the Suez crisis to Brexit, Stephens manages to escape the fatalism and teleological approach to history characteristic of so many publications about Britain’s apparently “inevitable” departure from the EU. Rather, he argues, it is impossible to understand the UK’s attitude towards European integration without placing it in the larger context of Britain’s relations with the rest of the world.
His aim, therefore, is to explain the mindset that has defined the priorities of the most powerful decision makers in London. Stephens writes that the history of Britain’s international relations since the second world war was essentially “a story of inflated ambition and diminished circumstance”, in which self-image and harsh realities often collided.
The 1956 Suez crisis is an appropriate starting point for the book because it was a moment of truth when it became painfully clear that Britain was no longer a world power that could afford to launch a major operation overseas to protect its vital interests against the will of the US. It also demonstrated the limits of the Commonwealth as a source of British power, when the majority of members, including India, opposed the UK over Suez at the United Nations.
There were three elements to Britain’s global role that preoccupied its prime ministers from Suez to Brexit more than anything else: the relationship with the US; the stability of sterling; and the country’s nuclear deterrent. Stephens encourages his readers to dispose of the rose-tinted glasses when examining this trio.
Relations with the US were indeed close, but a lot more “special” from a British point of view than an American one. Ultimately, no kinship, no shared language nor culture, no flourishing intelligence co-operation prevented the relationship from being brutally transactional at moments when the interests of UK and America collided. (The 1983 US invasion of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, was a case in point.) The state of the pound caused a succession of prime ministers many sleepless nights as the spectre of devaluation loomed. As for the nuclear deterrent, it has never been quite so “independent” as it may have looked.
Stephens points here to the great paradox of British postwar politics: centuries of imperial history did provide the elites in London with a global outlook — but the end of empire, with its very real consequences for Britain’s power, was not always reflected at the highest level of British politics. Warnings by civil servants and diplomats abroad about new realities were too often dismissed or ignored.
Britain Alone is no journalist’s memoir that looks to tell the story of the populist passions that underlay Brexit. Stephens draws upon academic historical research and archival records as well as the memoirs and journals of key decision makers and his interviews with them, without putting his personal experiences at the centre of the analysis. The result is a compelling, informative and readable history book.
As such, it offers some much-needed substance into the overly emotional and often superficial debate about the ways the UK can use its still significant capabilities to define and protect its interests in the world. Those involved in the making of Britain’s foreign policy, as well as foreign observers, would benefit from reading this book, if only to be reminded that the constructed binary choice — currently propagated by many politicians — between a “global Britain” and a “European Britain” is not borne out by historic reality.
Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit, by Philip Stephens, Faber, RRP£25, 480 pages
Helene von Bismarck is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London and author of a book on British foreign policy in the 1960s
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