Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lost an Empire... did not find a role

Harry Truman's last Secretary of State was the extremely talented Dean Acheson, and it was Acheson who has had the last word on the role of Britain in the later part of the twentieth century.

"Great Britain" he declared "has lost an Empire, and has yet to find a role".

Yet Britain eventually did find a role: the most loyal lieutenant of the Pax Americana. Despite a progressively declining economy, Britain maintained relatively large armed forces and typically integrated their operations with those of the United States. A good example is the fact that the UK does not have full size aircraft carriers, but much smaller vessels that were designed as a forward anti-submarine screen for the North Atlantic- effectively placing them subordinate to the much larger US carriers which could only be placed further back.

In the 1960's Britain chose to abandon its separate fighter-bomber programme, the TSR 2, and missile programme, the Blue Streak, and buy American equipment instead. As a result Britain dropped out of the space race and allowed France to develop its own military, missile and space programme independently. The costs of these programmes were obviously very large, and thus the decision to work more closely with the United States was as much a pragmatic decision as it was a political one.

Yet there has been a price for our close alliance with the United States. In many ways the USA has claimed the British tradition of liberty as part of its own inheritance and the British have become trapped in a world view that is backward looking. Unlike America or even France, Britain has lost a clear sense of itself and its purpose. Always cynical about grand ideas, Britain now seems to have lost any big idea about itself. As our politics has declined into pragmatic managerialism it has also become increasingly isolated from the principles that should underpin the exercise of power.

Now it becomes clear that the special relationship has ended. British disgust at the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush years is now being matched by the growing sense of hostility in the US towards Britain. British institutions, such as the NHS or the Monarchy, are held up to ridicule, while there was general revulsion at the cynical deal that Britain appears to have made with Gaddafi's Libya- a deal that is seen as being paid for by American blood. Open condemnation of the decision to free Al- Magrahi reflects profound anger at an attempt by Britain to gain commercial advantage from this tragic and disturbing affair. That calls for a boycott of British goods are still being made suggests that this a storm that has changed American perception of the UK from that of a loyal partner to that of a duplicitous and cynical freeloader on American goodwill.

In truth, the "Special Relationship" has been a complex and nebulous arrangement, but as- inevitably- the United States develops a broader range of alliances in the multi-polar world its diminution now leaves Britain even more lost. No Empire, no special relationship with the leading power: what is Britain for exactly?

I think the time has come for a radical reappraisal for what we as citizens want to get from our society and our government. I do not believe- and I don't think Margaret Thatcher did either- that "there is no such thing as society", it is just that "society" is not the same thing as government, and indeed not much to do with government either. As a classical Liberal I have always argued that the role and power of government must be limited as far as possible, and that the citizen is very unwise to offer government a blank cheque for its activities. The fact that our administration is largely conducted in secrecy I regard as dangerous, and that the democratic will is now largely conducted by professional politicians I consider profoundly wrong.

The aggregation of power to the centre has created a sense that the government are our masters, when it seems to me that they should be our servants. The very debate on Liberty, conducted in Britain from John Locke to Isiah Berlin is being subverted into cynical and unprincipled managerialism by politicians of all parties.

If Acheson's aphorism was primarily speaking of British foreign policy, I believe that the malaise that he identified was a more general failure of will- and it is a failure that we have still not rectified.

Our country faces profound challenges- even existential challenges- it is now essential that we abandon politics conducted by hype and Public Relations and focus on a new vision for our society. Ideology may have become a curse word in the past few decades, but I am increasingly certain the Britain needs an ideology- a set of principles that define us and inspire us.

Without the renewal of national purpose that this debate could engender, I fear that the UK faces a bleak and diminishing future: and will deserve to.


Newmania said...

and I don't think Margaret Thatcher did either- that "there is no such thing as society", it is just that "society" is not the same thing as government,

Quoting David Cameron ? There is hope for you yet. I think Margaret Thatcher did not accept the societal formulation of mutual responsibility and nor do I . That doesnot mean we do not think we have reponsibilities to others .

Anonymous said...

Surely Britain's role lies in Europe if only for financial security.