Personal observations #5 (and #6): Britain needs a strategy …

I wrote back in the summer of 2015 about Britain’s lack of direction, and how this is a bad thing for a small’ish island with no resources to speak of which has to live off its wits and its people and play the global system as best as it can. Here’s an excerpt:

“A narrative of discovery and settlement (acts of courage and resourcefulness which also shoved aside the indigenous population) defines America, and her gaze remains forwards, towards the next horizon. In contrast, the United Kingdom still looks backwards, over centuries, along a line of monarchs, a civil war, a civil revolution, English domination, an act of union, industrialization, democratisation, international expansion and plunder and withdrawal and guilt and today a gnawing uncertainty. Our story is organic, multi-layered, extraordinary. Migration is not at its centre, instead we perceive our victories as home-grown, the plucky island people pitted against a continent. Over recent decades we have grown wealthier and easier, but nonetheless felt our authority and confidence seep away. What, we wonder, is the British mission? Which way?

For many, today’s immigration levels feel too high for a crowded island, and add to this feeling of anxiety and lack of control. Yet it is our decency, the fairytales and poems, our nurses and British genius, the old and good institutions as well as the hard-hearted, fragile booming money song which draw the ambitious and determined from Africa, Asia and Europe. These migrants believe in the promise of the UK – our potential to thrive, to adapt and even to lead. They see this more clearly than many of the British do; we are too busy turning in eddies of disappointment. We eddy and we grow dizzy and there is no time, nor the stillness, to script a British storyline for the 21st century.”

British anxiety is peculiar given that the country has been on the right side of history since America’s War of Independence (by the way, that’s not the same as always being in the right). Britain’s open, service-orientated economy, its geography and the universality of the English language mean that it is well placed to exploit globalisation. We have expertise and capabilities which make us a valuable partner to allies around the world. Our liberal, democratic values, and those of our allies, are threatened. Britain’s democracy is imperfect but robust and improvable. Britain’s population will overtake Germany’s within decades and it looks likely we will become Europe’s biggest economy.  There is much to do. We are already a lucky country. Yet we grumble and fret and feel sorry for ourselves.

Since the first half of the twentieth century, Britain’s civil service hasn’t just lost its self confidence, its strategic capability has also faded. Read Jonathan Shaw’s excellent Britain in a Perilous World to understand that Whitehall now has little understanding of how to produce or implement grand strategy. Thus a strategic sensibility has been removed from public life and debate. This must have had a trickle down affect on the rest of the country. If a government does not think strategically, then the national DNA is depeleted. Developing a sensible strategy for your business / school / family becomes a less obvious advantage.

Britain’s centralised bureaucracy, Westminster’s theatre with its shouty, “he’s behind you!” adversarial politics and the loud and sometimes bullying media voices makes our politics really hard to follow. For most voters, watching political debate feels like standing in the wings of a theatre, listening to a cast of actors they canot really see make a great deal of noise. This experience has slowly denied generations of British voters access to their country’s politics and starved them of information. Lacking context, voters find it hard to participate confidently, and trust their judgement. The (unfair) collapse in trust for Britain’s politicians has further distanced British government from the British people. Britain’s place in the world, her relative strengths and weaknesses and her long term objectives – the basic elements of grand strategy – are now barely discussed during general elections (2015 was a good example). Most voters could only guess at Britain’s strategic priorities. So could most politicians.

… voting to leave the EU would be a good start

When Britons go to the polls later this year to vote in a referendum on EU membership, they should vote to leave.

Outside the Eurozone, Britain is already on the margins of the European Union, and is likely to become more marginalised by a fresh programme of integration aimed at making the single currency sustainable.  Britain should formalise this arrangement by negotiating a different relationship with the EU, and get out of the way of the 19 Eurozone members who need to integrate further. Only time will tell if the Euro really does have a long term future. Its frailty is largely the result of the reckless speed with which Europe’s elite has rushed its members through an extraordinary and unprecedented political experiment. There appears to be a consensus, at least among the governments of the Eurozone, to keep up the experiment and we shouldn’t hinder them. But it’s one hell of an experiment and one that has so far ill-served tens of millions of young people, mainly in southern Europe.

Historians will one day ask where the need for such speed came from, and ask how achieving ‘ever closer union’ became a matter of almost religious significance, so that to question it was deemed heretical and a sign of low intelligence or malign intent in the questioner. For decades the European Commission has claimed a uniquely moral dimension to its mission, transforming old enemies into inter-dependent partners. The Commission and European Central Bank’s vindictive treatment of Greece during the summer of 2015 exposed the conditional nature of European solidarity – you can count on your friends as long as you are solvent. Never mind that Germany and France broke the Euro’s rules long before Greece, or that it took only a very simple understanding of economics and human behaviour to predict the impact that Germany’s interest rate would have on one of Europe’s poorest countries. Greece has been punished for utilising the membership benefits a club it was allowed to join much too soon.

In today’s uncertain geopolitical landscape, Brussels’ top down institutions appear myopic and clumsy. Pre-occupied with moving its disparate parts forwards and together the EU will remain a neutered force on the world stage, incapable of responding effectively or with generosity to existential threats. Instead the EU will move with energy and purpose only when its core interests are at stake. Present Brussels with a crisis beyond its borders and Europe comes over all moribund. Think Yugoslavia, Rwanda, 9/11, the Syrian refugee crisis … Does the EU really represent the summit of human achievement? I don’t think so. It will have to adapt if Europe is to be come a powerful actor on the world stage. Britain should be Europe’s agent provocateur, a path finder towards a different kind of internationalism.

Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave, the group which will lead the ‘Leave’ campaign at the referendum has argued that Britain’s strategy for the 21st century should be to establish itself as the world’s education hub. This is worth exploring – it would leverage Britain’s globalism, language, our cultural reach and world class university infrastructure. Britain’s relatively small size, and the limits of our hard power wouldn’t be an obstacle. Committing to make Britain the international leader in education & research would bring a lot of very smart, diverse and ambitious people to our shores. This would have tremendous benefit, it would also be politically sensitive. But the vision of an optimistic, high powered and internationalist Britain flourishing outside the EU could win the referendum for Dominic and his colleagues.

Do they have enough time? I’m not sure they do. David Cameron and George Osborne will hold the referendum as early as June and hope that voters will play it safe, and opt for what they know. World leaders and multinational firms will urge them to vote to Remain, claiming that the global system needs Britain inside the EU. No it doesn’t – the global system will get along just fine with us outside the EU, and would be more likely to change for the better if we helped to disrupt it. World leaders and multinationals want to maintain an arrangement they understand and know how to influence. Like Hillary, they are incumbents trying to work a broken system.

In today’s uncertain, changing geopolitical landscape, Brussels’ top down institutions appear myopic and clunky. Monetary Union has been hard enough. Just you wait for Economic and Political Union. Pre-occupied with moving its disparate parts forwards and together the EU will remain a neutered force on the world stage, incapable of responding effectively or with generosity to existential threats.

Those that argue that ceasing to be a ‘full’ member of the EU would make Britain and Europe less safe are wrong – it’s NATO that guarantees Europe’s security, along with the size and capability of Europe’s military capability. The EU has so far failed to generate any meaningful hard-power, preferring to concentrate its efforts on achieving ever closer union and happy to leave security to the Americans. This situation is not sustainable – with Russia posing a real challenge to Europe’s borders, and the Americans increasingly orientating towards the Pacific, Europe needs to become a much more impactful hard power player. Outside the EU, Britain’s politicians would need to hustle a new role for the country, for example by convening a meaningful security role for Europe’s armies, navies and air forces, generating new alliances that connect Europe with the rest of the globe and  pushing for a stronger role for the UN. Having Britain outside the EU is therefore in the interests of the West. And standing on its own two feet, Britain would become more resilient and self-sufficient, and – crucially – politicians would be bound more closely to voters, obliged to engage them more effectively, and keep them better informed.

Alex blogs at STUFF HAPPENS

International Affairs & Security Politics & Government Technology & Innovation Leadership & Motivation