Sorry – still going on this. My bullet point analysis of Britain’s malaise …
- Britain is caught – even now – between an imperial sense of responsibility, know-how and engagement; and limited post-imperial capability. This gap has become wider since the financial crisis.
- The context of international relations has been transformed by technology, population growth, resource competition and the globalisation of the world economy. Change and confusion is everywhere. Day-by-day, free trade and technology are making the world infinitely ever more knowledgeable and more inter-dependent. Though absurdly unequal, the world is richer and more peaceful than it has ever been. But the relative power of nation states and governments has dwindled. The rules-based system of global diplomacy, built around the United Nations and championed by Britain, is stretched taut. Europe is our main trading partner but is moribund, we are trying to increase our trade with the rest of the world but it grows slowly, our principal diplomatic ally is the US but Obama is pivoting its foreign policy eastwards and our ability to provide useful military assistance in the Indian Ocean and Pacific is now very limited. The role of the Commonwealth is unclear. What on earth are we to do?
- We do not have a game plan. Our elite governs instead by pragmatism, precedent and real politik. In reality, the men and women of Whitehall, having no more idea how to respond to the changing context of international affairs than the rest of us, but operating in the midst of deeply established protocol and habit, rush hither and thither spinning plates (ancient and modern) in order to keep them from crashing to the ground. They dash from one plate to the next, weary smiles on their faces and a look that warns the rest of us to back-off because this is how it has always been done, always must be done and the reasons are, with all due respect, perhaps too complicated for us to understand. The Foreign Office has seen it all before – “leave it to us” we are told, “we are experts”. Lord Palmerston, twice British prime minister during the second half of the 19th century famously said “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” This sounds good but what does it actually mean in 2013/23/33/43 …?
- Our political class is risk averse. Since the Second World War we have recruited our politicians from an ever narrowing gene pool. They are talented and streetwise individuals – Cameron and Osborne are good examples, as are Miliband and Alexander – but they have been immersed in Whitehall or Brussels for most of their adult lives. They only know the view from the top, they are expert in how to make the machine work (no mean skill for politicians), their heroes are all political. Their thinking is constrained by our short political cycles, and focused on winning the next election. So our system rewards individuals who will be good administrators of the Whitehall machinery, but who will find it difficult to be anything more than incremental reformers.
- The political class, expert in government but nothing else, has also become dislocated from Britain’s voters; the elites know this but they don’t know how to re-connect, nor are they absolutely sure they want to. Since the war Britain’s capabilities (actual and relative), and the international context in which we find ourselves, have changed immeasurably. But the electorate is rarely consulted on decisions about national strategy and British priorities – except when popular debate is judged unavoidable, such as the 1975 referendum on whether or not to stay in the European Economic Community. Surely a sustainable, successful strategy will be one which is understood and actively supported by a majority of British citizens – imagine the pay-off if we one day found ourselves all pointed in approximately the same direction? Instead the people grumble about politicians, and events which seem confusing and uncontrollable, while our elites busy themselves spinning plates. This state of affairs now poses, I believe, a real danger to our long term prosperity and security.
Can Cameron devise a grand strategy for the UK that combines confidence with modern day capabilities and values? Is it possible to find a narrative that will engage a population which now tends to self-doubt and cynicism, and close the gap between the elite and the majority of people? If Cameron can manage something along these lines he should go down in history as a reformer and a visionary, and he might even save Europe into the bargain.
Enough on this. Problem now clear’ish, if crudely described. What’s the solution?