Great Britain’s Long Search for a Role in the World

March 2021

Brexit is a mistake that the UK will come to regret. The country’s illusions of greatness were outsized 65 years ago when it refused to join the founding members of the European Community. Now, it has made the same mistake again. Brexit is an empty promise to recast the future as the past.

By Philip Stephens

Brexit UK EU Großbritannien Europa London
© Donata Kindesperk

You could say it’s back to the future. Nearly sixty years ago, in 1962, the influential postwar US statesman Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman, offered an acid observation on Britain's struggle to shape a new identity for itself in world affairs. Britain had lost an empire, quipped Acheson, but failed to find a role. His rebuke, keenly felt in London, reflected the UK's refusal to join the founding nations of the European Community at the Messina Conference in 1955. The UK’s assumption was that its links with the Commonwealth and close ties with Washington would somehow continue to bestow it a unique place in global affairs. Acheson's remarks were wounding because the then-British prime minister Harold Macmillan knew them to be true.

A decade later, the UK signed the Treaty of Rome. Britain would henceforth balance a close security relationship with Washington with engagement in the European project. And now?  Brexit has negated the European pillar of UK foreign policy, leaving, as Acheson put it, a nation in search of a role – again.

Populism’s peril

The British vote to leave the EU was in significant respect part of the much wider populist insurgency challenging elites across many advanced democracies. Six months after the 2016 referendum, the same tide swept Donald Trump into the White House. Supporters of Brexit and Trump had much in common. Many were from smaller towns and rural areas left behind by globalization and technological change. Facing job insecurity and stagnant wages, they were receptive to populists who blamed immigration. Their predicament could be easily measured against the rising affluence of the metropolitan ”elites“ who by and large had benefited from digital innovation and open, liberal markets.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, however, were also tugging on a specific, peculiarly British, set of emotions concerned with the transition from great power to an influential, but second rank nation. The Brexit referendum was the latest battleground in a long struggle over national identity rooted in the outcome of the war and subsequent loss of empire – a struggle that saw English exceptionalism collide repeatedly with the economic decline of a nation that had ruled much of the globe and was now obliged to find a place in a world that was run by others. During the 2016 referendum campaign, Britain's membership in “Europe” was framed by the Brexiters as an admission of defeat and exercise in retreat. Brexit promised “liberation” and the returns of a much more expansive role called “global Britain”. Like Trump’s “Make America great again”, this appealed to nostalgia. The Brexiters' promise to “take back” control of the UK's destiny harkened back to the days when Britain could send a gunboat to enforce its will.

The gap between aspirations and reality

The French diplomat Jean Monnet observed shrewdly that the UK's postwar refusal to join Paris and Bonn in an integrated Europe had been “the price of victory”. The war left France, Germany, and other continental Europeans with pressing reason to seek binding reconciliation through supranational cooperation. The Coal and Steel Community and the common market were projects with a political, as well as economic purpose. Britain could not forget that it had stood alone in 1940 while the Nazis overran the European continent. For too long, Winston Churchill and his successors saw themselves on a higher plane – as members of the Big Three along with the US and Soviet Union.

The war had bankrupted the nation but failed to dent its global ambitions. A perceptive civil servant, Henry Tizard, prophetically highlighted the danger: “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 soon cease to be a great nation”. The ruling classes, however, were not listening. Churchill, who had joined US president Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at Potsdam to settle the future of Europe, was in favor of European unity – as long as everyone understood that the UK would stand aloof.

In 1956, the Suez debacle sounded the last trumpets of empire. In its way, the balancing act that emerged during the 1970s worked: namely a close bilateral security relationship with the US in which London sought to play Greece to Washington's Rome, alongside membership of the European Community. There were bumps along the road – not least in the 1980s when the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, battled with her partners for a more equitable budget arrangement. But the US provided security; and Europe offered economic opportunity. Influence in Brussels amplified Britain's voice in Washington while a seat at the table in Brussels added to its weight in Washington. By the 1980s and 1990s, Britain was setting much of the agenda in Europe.

Monnet could never have anticipated that Britain would make the same mistake twice: namely that, having finally owned up to reality and joined the EU, it would forty-odd years later then decide to leave.

Brexit is the empty promise to recast the future as the past

The sadness is that governments in London never really made the psychological adjustment. They rarely celebrated their own successes in Brussels. Germany, France, Italy, and others saw national advantage in European integration. Britain had joined the European club because it was worried about being left behind. The initial insecurity in the Conservative Party hardened into resentment, the more so after the party's pro-Europeans engineered Thatcher's defenestration. By the time the single currency project was launched at Maastricht, many of these Eurosceptics had come to see the EU as a conspiracy against Britain. And this theme was amplified by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch and the nation's right-wing press. By the time Johnson led the Brexiters into battle, the ruling emotions of superiority and insecurity had merged into a clarion call for “liberation”. Brexit, with the restoration of national “sovereignty”, was an empty promise to recast the future as the past.

Johnson's “global Britain” is an entirely rhetorical construct. Brexit has not changed Britain's fundamental interests: the preservation of an open, secure international order rooted in the rule of law and underpinned by democratic values. Nor has the decision to cut ties with Brussels redrawn the nation's geography and rewritten its history. Britain's security concerns are Europe's; and with nearly half its trade with the EU, the economic imperative of a close relationship speaks for itself.

These are not truths, however, to which the present government can admit. Johnson is pledged to “make a success” out of Brexit even if it is already obvious that the economic costs will be high. Britain, of course, has considerable strengths. It remains the sixth or seventh largest economy, it has a relatively strong military, and excellent diplomatic and intelligence services. It holds permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Over time, realpolitik will begin to reassert itself. As memories of Brexit fade, future governments will seek a closer relationship with the EU. Between now and then, however, it will have to live again with Acheson's prophetic jibe.

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Philip Stephens Autor

Philip Stephens is the Financial Times’ chief political commentator and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. He is the author of “Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit” published in January 2021.

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