6:40 pm - March 4th 2008
British Foreign policy is an interesting beast at the moment. Politicians talk a lot about punching above our weight in the world- as though Britain was a middle weight boxer in a heavy weight world and the seat on the UN security council not to mention troops in South West Asia signify a country with aspirations to world power status. But the UK is in a rather odd position- a position mirrored by many of its European partners. We are a small island state- which for historical reasons has been incredibly powerful- and yet has a population of only 50 million.
Compare that to the behemoths of China and India with over a billion people each, the United States or Brazil with 300 million or even Russia with a population of 150 million. The truth is that the UK is only so powerful because proportionately its people are more wealthy than the Brazilians, Chinese or Indians- but its in the interests of the people of the UK that that doesn’t continue to be true.
It’s in our interests that that doesn’t continue to be true – because though proportionately we grow slightly poorer as the Chinese and Indians grow richer- absolutely we grow richer. That happens in two ways. Firstly we grow absolutely richer because they buy our products. Simple economic theory, and the experience of the world since the industrial revolution, demonstrates that central truth. The British have never been richer than they are today- never been in substantial ways because of technology a healthier people. Proportionately this century has seen Germany, the United States and later plenty of other countries pass the UK: but Britain has only been in relative decline, absolutely the country has got richer and is more prosperous today than at the height of the empire. Indeed the fundamental critique of British foreign policy since the second world war has been that if anything, we have been too concerned about our position in the world- say with the preoccupation with having a bloody Union Jack on a nuclear device (to quote Bevin) and too little with domestic tax cuts or spending.
Relative decline is a good strategy for the next century in foreign policy terms too. If we accept that, and I think its a fair point, increasing education and increasing wealth result in fewer wars, (Ok that can be a contentious point in detail, but I think as a broad generalisation its fair) then increased wealth say on the Indian subcontinent can only be a good thing for the UK. Education might lead to a softening of attitudes over Kashmir. Again if you are worried about immigration, then the only way to deal with it really is to create incentives for people to stay in their own societies- no fence or border police will ever be as effective as the opportunity to earn as much by staying as by going. In that sense making the rest of the world wealthier has real good consequences for the UK.
But that will come at the expense of the UK’s own position as one of the world’s premier nations- its not that the UK will not be wealthy, but that it will no longer be wealthier than India or China as they grow and industrialise. A rightwing view of the EU- say the Ted Heath view- is that Europe would provide a launch pad for the British to reassert their power, their imperial mission. I don’t think that Europe will ever be able to carry the weight of that expectation- though it can of course help us economically and in terms of our immediate security (Europe in NATO or through some other defensive arrangement, and through sharing policing information). The discussion about foreign policy though that we haven’t had in this country is not a discussion about the merits of intervening, but about how the UK can function in the future as we become progressively proportionately weaker.
Of course our current status is historically atypical. The period roughly from 1688 to 1990 was an aberration. Historically the UK has never been that significant- there have been moments when say as in the 15th Century briefly Britain had an impact on Western European politics through interventions in France, but more typical is the experience of Henry VIII, claiming vastly more importance than he had, or of England under Henry II, part of a much bigger entity including French territory. The real point is that we have for 300 hundred years been in a strange situation- and it will be odd not to be in that situation after so long a period. The British discussion of foreign policy still feeds too much off the American, when America is demographically and economically far more secure as a great power. We need to think about a world in which we are no longer a great power- and in which our capacity to intervene overseas is much more limited. We need also to recognise that it is in our interest to get proportionately weaker on the world stage- the objective of British foreign policy is to help other countries take up and over take us, as their citizens get richer. Pakistan, India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, they all have populations so much bigger than ours, that even were their citizens half as wealthy each as our citizens are, they would matter more economically.
Losing our status as one of the world’s great powers would be a good thing for us all- but it will require us to think in a different way about foreign policy. That challenge is scarcely being met in a Westminster culture that is still suffering an imperial hangover.
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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