Today I want to talk about Britain’s two most important relationships: with our neighbours in Europe; and our cousins in the United States.
As those descriptions suggest, the two relationships are very different. They are born of different circumstances and have been tested by different pressures. They provoke different emotions in the minds of British citizens. But they are intimately linked.
The stronger both of those relationships are, the stronger and more successful Britain is. But if one is weakened they both are weakened. When Brits cast their votes in a few weeks’ time on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union, the decision we collectively make will have a profound impact on Britain’s standing in the world for decades to come.
If we choose to remain, we will be voting for Britain’s continued leadership position in world affairs; for continued influence in Washington as much as in Brussels or Berlin; and for our reputation as a proud, outward-looking, internationalist power.
But if we choose to leave, we will be voting to diminish that position. We will reduce our relationship with our near neighbours to one of semi-detachment, and in doing so make ourselves less influential, and therefore less valuable, as an ally to our American cousins. We will be sacrificing our seat at the top table and resiling from our proud internationalist past in favour of a new era of isolation.
Those campaigning for us to leave the European Union like to evoke a sentimental, nostalgic vision of Britannia, proud and independent, ruling the waves once again. But the truth is leaving cannot return us to a halcyon age – if such an age ever existed – and may even mean sacrificing the United Kingdom itself: a leave vote is most likely to act as the trigger for a second independence referendum in Scotland and the very real possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Far from being the patriotic choice, Brexit would jeopardise the very existence of the United Kingdom.
So this referendum is a crossroads. Great Britain or Little England. It poses an existential question about Britain’s identity and its place in the world.
Britain’s evolving role in world affairs
So how did we get here? Little more than a century ago we were the world’s pre-eminent power. The British Empire spanned the globe. But it is the story of the end of empire and how we sought to carve out a new role in a new world order that explains why we face the choice on our EU membership today.
The history of Britain has been intimately linked with our continental neighbours since Roman times and our membership of the European Union is simply the latest expression of what has been a long tradition of engagement. We have had Danish kings, Norman-French kings, one Dutch King and a succession of German kings. We have been allied with the Dutch against the French and the Spanish, with the Spanish and the Prussians against the French, and with the French against the Germans.
Britain became an imperial and global power in competition, first with Spain, next with the Netherlands, and then with France. We have been a cosmopolitan nation for centuries – long before modern trends of mass migration. No doubt the Libyan auxiliaries who guarded Hadrian’s Wall intermingled with native Britons. Retired legionaries from across the Roman Empire were settled in Britain. Viking settlements shaped many of our place-names, Norman settlers shaped our language. Huguenot refugees colonised East London – among them the ancestors of Nigel Farage, one of the leading voices for Britain to leave the EU.
If you are not familiar with Nigel Farage, imagine a cross between Ted Cruz and Piers Morgan. If you can bear it.
Germans migrated to England in our industrial revolution. Russian and Polish Jews fleeing Tsarist persecution transformed first our clothes manufacturers and then our retail trade. Enterprising Brits also flowed the other way. There were Scots Generals in both the French and Russian armies. Donetsk, now caught up in the troubles of eastern Ukraine, was originally called Yusovska, after the Welshman – John Hughes – who set up the first iron smelter there.
And the modern British values we now cherish were developed alongside European values. The English Reformation was closely linked to reforming ideas in the Netherlands; the Scottish Reformation to preachers in Geneva. The 18th century Scottish Enlightenment interacted with the French Enlightenment; David Hume and Adam Smith both spent time in Paris. The growth of scientific and technical education in the 19th century drew heavily on the German model.
All of these influences helped Britain rise to become the world’s pre-eminent power. But that pre-eminence only lasted until the 20th century.
It was the Second World War, or perhaps the immediate post-war era, that represented the symbolic handover of hegemony from Great Britain to the United States. As Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, put it: “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go”.
In reality, by the time Macmillan was in Downing Street, that handover had long since happened. The war had left us virtually bankrupt, and we were given a further shove towards the precipice by President Truman in 1945 when he decided to end the Lend-Lease agreement that provided us and other US wartime allies with vast amounts of aid.
Britain was left limping, our exports at a fifth of their pre-war level and barely enough money to feed our citizens. The British government had to resort to sending John Maynard Keynes to Washington DC to beg for a loan – and when he got one it was far less than he had hoped.
Our reduced status was confirmed the following year when the United States locked the United Kingdom out of nuclear co-operation, and the year after that, when India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – became independent.
Just under a decade later, we would face humiliation on the international stage again when we sent troops into Suez to retake the canal – to the surprise and outrage of our American cousins. When the military adventure descended into a costly and emasculating disaster, we once again had to beg for a loan from the IMF, which President Eisenhower demanded was only granted on condition that we withdrew from Suez.
And while we were being put firmly in our place on the international stage by our American cousins, our European neighbours were busy getting on without us.
When Winston Churchill addressed what he described as the “tragedy of Europe” in Zurich little more than a year after VE Day, he called for a new era of European co-operation, even a ‘United States of Europe’, but crucially one in which Britain was not a participant. Our focus was to remain in the Commonwealth, not the continent on our doorstep. We were to be no more than ‘friends and sponsors’; happy to tell Europe to do as we say, but not to do as we do.
As a result, we spent much of the 1950s watching from the sidelines and becoming increasingly torn as to whether we should be involved at all. When the pivotal Messina summit came in 1955 to discuss the formation of the Common Market, we refused to even send a minister, despatching only a mid-ranking civil servant.
A few years later we had changed our tune entirely and wanted in. But this time it was France – our historic rival across the Channel – that turned us away, with Charles De Gaulle snubbing us twice in that decade with a haughty Gallic ‘Non!’
When we did finally join the European club in the 1970s, it was with more of a shrug than an embrace. There was no romance and certainly no sense of triumph in our joining what was then the European Community. It was instead a pragmatic decision – a pounds and pence calculation – about what was good for us, and a recognition of our new, more modest status in the world: no longer the Britannia of Empire, but one that needed the strength in numbers of our European neighbourhood in order to flourish.
And that ambivalence has always set us apart from our neighbours. For the Germans, the French, the Italians and the Benelux countries, European cooperation represented the victory of peace over war, propelled by the historic reconciliation between France and Germany. For Spain, Greece and Portugal, membership signified the victory of democracy over fascism as military dictatorships gave way to modern governments. More recently, of course, a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe have joined the EU as the crowning act of their post-Communist transformation and as a guarantee of their independence from Soviet rule.
In other words, to those other states joining the European club was above all a statement of something big and positive, an affirmation of a better future after the bloodshed and extremes of the past. Yet, for us, joining the EC was seen as a lesser of evils: better than going it alone, but a sober admission nonetheless that the days of Empire were well and truly over. It was a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.
We are not entirely unique in that attitude. Denmark and Sweden, for example, were originally resistant to membership. They wanted to protect their strong welfare states and it was only when continued Scandinavian welfare exceptionalism grew increasingly unsustainable that they accepted, also a little reluctantly, the need to join.
But the fundamental point is that Britain, unlike much of the rest of the EU, did not join Europe as a way of embracing a new and modern identity. This was not a step towards the kind of nation we wanted to be, but rather a step away from the kind of nation we once were.
We were driven by arguments for the head. We have rarely been encouraged to value our place as a leading European nation in our hearts. This, in my view, is where much of the angst stems from. And it is why so much of our European debate is not, in fact, about Europe at all. It’s about Britain. Our identity. Our sovereignty. It reflects what has been a lack of clarity about where exactly we stand in today’s world, and who we stand with.
That ambivalence has dogged the British debate over Europe ever since – leading directly to this referendum. When I hear the shrill arguments against Britain’s membership of the EU made by those who advocate Brexit, I sometimes think they equate our membership of the EU with Britain’s loss of empire, as if it was the fault of Brussels that Britain lost its colonies.
The truth, of course, is quite different: far from weakening Britain, our membership of the EU has allowed us to flourish. Britain today is a major world power. We are the world’s fifth largest economy. London is one of the world’s most popular destinations and a centre for culture and global commerce. Our universities are among the very best on the planet. Our businesses lead the world in everything from computer games to wind power. We don’t need to rule the waves in order to wield influence across the modern world. Europe helps Britain to be great. We are world leaders in a global marketplace in large part because Europe enables rather than thwarts it.
Because our debate has been dominated by cold pragmatism, the patriotic case for joining with our neighbours has rarely been made. The case that membership of the European club enhances our status in the world; makes us more influential; more affluent; and more secure, has rarely been heard.
Membership of the European Union is profoundly in our national interest. That’s why it is so galling to see the advocates of Brexit cloak themselves in the language of patriotism. There is nothing patriotic in seeing your country diminished. Withdrawal and isolation is a betrayal of our national interest.
And just as our relationship with our European neighbours is a modern success story, our relationship with our American cousins has been rebuilt too. Our modern alliance is built on a foundation of defence, security and intelligence co-operation, mutual economic interest, cultural affinity, language, as well as a personal affinity between leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and George Bush and Tony Blair. And, yes, our ability to influence our neighbours in the European Union.
The special relationship between our two countries was tested throughout the 20th century but it remains a strong, deeply held relationship.
The need for a strategic anchor in Europe
So what next?
The world is changing at a relentless pace. Globalisation has transformed economies the world over. The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and do business. Stateless terrorism and cyber warfare have created new types of global conflict. The financial crash has shaken the western world at a time when new economic powers in the east are starting to flex their muscles. The mass movement of people, whether it’s economic migration or families fleeing warzones in their hundreds of thousands, are creating new pressures and challenges for nation states. Climate change threatens the long-term survival of our planet.
How can a country like the United Kingdom protect its citizens, prosper economically, remain a world power and rise to the myriad challenges of an ever changing global landscape?
One approach is based on the idea of a ‘networked world’: a web of multilateral and bilateral arrangements between governments, businesses, cultural institutions and private citizens.
This “network” approach is fashionable among British Conservatives. William Hague, the former British foreign secretary, argued that Britain should not be fixated on our near neighbours. His vision was about Britain being open for business across the globe: revamping the government’s Trade and Investment department, opening consulates in far flung places and courting the world through a constant treadmill of trade missions and diplomatic outreach. He argued passionately, in a speech in 2010, that “influence increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections, including the informal, which act as vital channels of influence and decision-making and require new forms of engagement from Britain”.
But this approach has led to a constant recalculation of our global priorities.
Shortly after the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010, the Conservatives decided that the UK’s relationship with India was its most important – indeed the Prime Minister led a high profile delegation to India after little more than two months in office. Then it was decided that it was in fact China that was the key relationship, and it soon played host to a series of trade and diplomatic visits. Towards the very end of the Coalition there was even a proposal that the Government should make relations with the Gulf States our chief priority, something I refused to endorse as the shifting menu of foreign policy priorities was starting to appear a little absurd.
It is clear that since the last election, the Government, and Chancellor George Osborne in particular, has continued to court the Chinese above all others – seeking investment in everything from nuclear power plants to high speed rail lines. However, the dumping of vast amounts of below cost Chinese steel on British and other world markets has exposed the naivety of such an unqualified attitude towards China.
The ‘networked world’ approach of the British Conservative Party was a great frustration to me in Government. I believed, and still do, that of course we should be open to the world and global in our outlook. But that starts in our own back yard. In the end, Britain needs a strategic anchor around which it can organise its worldwide strategic interests. Relying on a shifting mosaic of “networks” is a recipe for inconsistency and confusion. We wield more power and influence in Washington, Beijing and Mumbai when we wield more power and influence in Brussels, Berlin and Paris – and do so consistently over time.
Yet in recent times too little effort has been put into nurturing and strengthening our ties with other key EU players like Germany and France – unsurprising, given that the focus of political energies within the Conservative Party has been on its own internal differences rather than the wider interests of the country. The nadir was the moment in early 2015 when Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande travelled to Russia and Ukraine for talks with Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko without even telling the UK. It was a snub that would have been utterly unthinkable just a few years ago.
Without a leadership role in the union of 500 million citizens on our doorstep, why should the Americans, or the Indians, or the Chinese, actually listen to us? We can’t influence the rest of the world if we retreat from our corner of it – a view repeated to me over and over again by US decision makers I spoke to during my time in office, who argued that British influence in the European Union strengthened the West and EU-NATO co-operation.
And it is not just our political clout in Europe that matters to the special relationship – the EU is vital to Britain’s trading relationship with the United States too. The supporters of Brexit frequently argue that if we leave the European Union it will all be ok because we will simply renegotiate bilateral trade deals with other countries instead, the US included. But it is not that simple. Michael Froman, President Obama’s trade representative, has made clear that the US is not interested in doing trade deals with individual countries, Britain included, and that Britain has more leverage in trade negotiations as a senior player in the world’s biggest marketplace.
He is one of many senior US voices that have made their voices heard in recent months.
The US Ambassador to London Matthew Barzun has spoken out in favour of Britain staying in the EU. John Kerry has said that US has what he called “a profound interest” in the UK voting to remain.
Just this week, James Rubin, the former State Department spokesperson, said “friends do not let friends drive drunk” and that Brexit was not in the US interest and “not in the world’s interest”.
He was followed by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers who said that Brexit would be the “most isolationist deed in the last century” and warned that Britain would become a “less relevant and less significant economy”.
And, most importantly, President Obama has said that having the UK in the European Union gives the States “much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union.” It is a case I hope and expect he will make loudly and clearly when he visits London in the coming days.
In fact, the only prominent American who has dissented from that view is Donald Trump.
So, the choice for any British voter who cares about American opinion couldn’t be clearer: Trump wants Britain out of the EU; President Obama wants us to stay in. It is one of the more remarkable twists in this ongoing saga that Boris Johnson, a contender for the future leadership of Britain’s most Atlanticist political party, should side with Trump rather than Obama. I know who’s side I – and I suspect millions of other Brits – would rather be on.
Based on a press release from the Liberal Democrats containing Nick Clegg’s speech on Europe and the special relationship at Princeton University 20 April 2016.