In “The Times” today Roger Boyes seeks to sell the idea of “Global Britain” with a new “Great Exhibition” like those we had in 1851 and 1951. It’s a laughable idea !
In 1851 Britain was an Imperial power and much of the world in the school atlases was painted pink. Our navy, and our economy, was bigger than that of the United States. How we got to this position of power is not a story to dwell on in too much detail and certainly nothing to boast about, but there it was.
By 1951 we had got rid of the Jewel in the Crown of Empire (with deadly incompetence) and we were into the process of divesting ourselves of the rest. That wasn’t a walk in the park either.
By 1962 we hadn’t quite become post colonial – there was still the 5 Million people of Hong Kong to let down by handing them over to a hostile power. In that year former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously told us that Britain “had lost an empire and had not found a role.” He added:
“Britain’s attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a Commonwealth which has no political structure or unity or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship – this role is about played out.” And, crucially, he also said that Britain’s application for membership of the Common Market was a “decisive turning point.” Should Britain join the Six, “another step forward of vast importance will have been taken.”
So as long ago as 1962 “Global Britain” was a chimera though a fair number of ageing Imperialists denied it. And as long ago as 1962 it was clear that active participation in the accelerating moves towards integration in Europe was “vastly important” and a “step forward”.
Since 1962 the world has seen immense change, and these changes have strengthened the logic of Mr Acheson’s then analysis. The “Global” powers are now The United States, China and the European Union with Japan and a rather diminished Russia in the second rank. The most optimistic assessment of Britain’s chances in this new world order post Brexit places us somewhere in a middle rank – though without the size of others like Brazil or India or the the entrepreneurship of the likes of Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea etc.
Britain decoupled from the EU is a country which has lost the raison d’être that Dean Acheson described for us and is floundering without a role. Our strength in Financial Services is under threat from the Eurozone and the City’s dominant role is already declining, hardly surprisingly. We manufacture little and decoupled from tariff free Europe a major market becomes difficult for what we do still make. To be a niche producer is the best we can hope for.
The drivers of Brexit included flag-waving nationalism which struck a chord with those unable to understand the realities of the post-Imperial world order. When AC Benson wrote “Land of Hope and Glory” in 1901 “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” could still be sung without irony. The nineteenth Century, just finished, was certainly the British Century. But the twentieth was to be American and the twenty-first Chinese (if the first two decades are anything to go by). For a middling country like Britain to go it alone is a silly conceit – and to suggest that we can be “Global” a preposterous delusion.