Britain – the state of the nation

The New York Times has called it a ‘crisis of identity.’ I think that is to put too much blame on the British people. I would call it a crisis of leadership. 

Stein Ringen
21 July 2014
David Cameron chats with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang outisde Downing Street

David Cameron chats with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang outisde Downing Street. Amer Ghazzal/Demotix. All rights reserved. As our political leaders leave London behind for the summer tranquillity of their country houses and French and Italian villas, they and we might do worse than to reflect on what is happening to the nation.

It is a long time since Britain was governed well. Many of us have ascribed that to systemic problems in Parliament, Whitehall and local government. My own pamphlet on New Labour, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Brown, was subtitled How a Strong Government Was Defeated by a Weak System of Governance.

The systemic problems are very much with us, but to explain Britain’s current slide to decline we need to add another component: a government and prime minister unusually prone to misjudgement and to compounding mistakes with more mistakes.

First calamity

The first possible calamity is a vote for independence in Scotland. It might be that come September the United Kingdom will no longer exist. The union should not have been put at this risk.

It is an injustice that a small number of Scots have been given the power to decide the future of the United Kingdom. Out of a population of 64 million, the Scots are only just over 5 million. England’s 54 million have no say in the destiny of their country, nor do the 4 million people of Wales and Northern Ireland. The vast majority of the people were never asked or even consulted. 2 million votes in Scotland for independence, or even 1.5 million or less, could be enough to bring the union to an end.

The government in London did not need to make this concession to a vocal minority. It could have pointed to the numbers and to the injustice of a unilateral Scottish vote. It could at the very least have made the future of the union a matter of a consultative process between its constituent parts: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It could have let the Scottish nationalists know that neo-nationalism has no place in a modern Europe.

Of course, there are systemic defects involved. The Blair government made the mistake of handing Scotland a government of their own with nothing equivalent in England. The English majority has no political instrument through which to promote their interests. If Mr. Cameron felt the need to do something on this account, he could have rectified the mistake of his predecessor government and established some form of long needed regional governance in all of the union.

Second calamity

The second possible calamity is that Britain leaves the European Union. If the first one happens and Scotland goes independent, the second one is all the more likely. Mr. Cameron claims that he wants Britain to stay in the EU, but on different terms. If that is his goal, he should have told his European partners that Britain is in the EU to stay and on that basis demanded a reform of the union. The EU is ripe for reform and everyone knows it. This strategy would have given Britain a stronger bargaining position and many allies among the EU countries.

Instead, Mr. Cameron chose to threaten the EU with destruction, then wasted what little political capital he had preserved in the Junker affair, and in the process destroyed the coalition he could have built. The EU will reform, but as a result of Mr. Cameron’s mistakes, more likely in a direction he does not want. As a result, Britain’s exit has become more probable.

The injustice here is that Mr. Cameron is not only reducing the stature of Britain but doing damage to Europe more widely. The EU is not just a trading block but a historical project in the spirit of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. The British government must defend British interests but also has a duty of friendship. What Mr. Cameron has achieved defies belief: he has both undermined the defence of Britain’s interests and failed in his duty of friendship.

Third mistake

His third great mistake is in his dealings with China. Last year, he was able to pay an official visit to Beijing, having assured his hosts that he would not embarrass them about human rights. He had had to cancel a previous planned visit after he met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 and was told by the leaders in Beijing that he was not welcome. He has subsequently stuck to his assurance by keeping quiet about Beijing’s manoeuvres against Hong Kong’s rights. These were enshrined in the China-Britain Joint declaration in 1996, and Britain then committed to being their guarantor. Now, the people of Hong Kong are on the streets in defence of their rights – and Britain is silent.

During his visit, Mr. Cameron begged the Chinese leaders to invest in Britain’s development of nuclear energy and high speed rail. At his return visit to London in June 2014, the Chinese premier Li Keqiang confirmed that they would. Presto, the Chinese state will now become a co-owner of Britain’s strategic infrastructure, not Chinese investors but the Chinese state.

The mistakes here are one on top of the other. The Chinese state guards its own energy and transport as ‘strategic sectors’ over which it itself retains absolute control. To allow that same state partial control over these sectors here is against the national interest. This is not just a matter of selling the family silver, it is to reduce the Britons from owners to tenants in their own home. To beg the Chinese state for these investments is to represent Britain as a poor developing country that cannot afford to make its own necessary investments. For a British prime minister, a leader of the democratic world, to crawl on his knees in front of the masters in Beijing, is to do damage to the standing of democracy in the world.

It is also a strategic mistake. In a recent interview, the Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop (on July 10 and not speaking about the British case), said that it is “a mistake to avoid speaking about China” in a hope of gaining favour, and that “China does not respect weakness.” Australia has more experience than most in dealing with China.

It is not easy to understand how a government and its leader can stumble into such grave mistakes. But there is a common thread in these three misadventures, not of bold gambles but of weak appeasement. The Scottish nationalists make themselves difficult and the prime minister seeks to appease them with a referendum. The europhobes inside and outside of his party make themselves difficult and the prime minister seeks to appease them with demonstrative and nasty gestures vis-á-vis European partners. The Chinese leaders set the terms and the prime minister seeks to appease them by bringing them the tribute of servility.

But appeasement never works. The vote in Scotland may not be lost, but the schism will not go away, as it did not go away with the appeasement of devolution. The Conservatives may lose the next election and we may escape the threat of a referendum, but the damage has been done to Britain’s standing in Europe and Europe’s standing in the world. At home, where he one day wants a restoration of ‘British values,’ one of which is supposed to be ‘tolerance of others,’ he the next day fails to stand up to the voice of xenophobia.

The leaders in Beijing are hard men. They do not respect a pushover. Time may come that Britain needs China’s political support. She will not get it.

If we do take some time in the quiet of summer to reflect on the state of the nation, we will see a nation diminished, diminished in cohesion, standing, friendship, respect and self-esteem. We will see a nation that on this prime minister’s watch has been put at risk of diminishing yet further into a small and marginal country in Europe and the world.

The New York Times has called it a ‘crisis of identity.’ I think that is to put too much blame on the British people. I would call it a crisis of leadership. 

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