For a small island country located off the coast of Europe, Britain has been a central player in international affairs for a longer period of time than most other countries in the world. Britain’s rise to global influence was shaped by the agricultural and industrial revolutions that it led through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which provided the basis upon which British influence spread throughout the world. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain was recognized as having an Empire where the sun never set. By this time Britain faced challenges from other countries, most notably Germany and the United States, who, with larger economies and in many cases greater resources, were able to overtake British leadership in many areas of economic activity. This was for all intents and purposes a natural state of affairs as British influence had been shaped by being the first country to industrialise in the modern era. It was therefore inevitable that at the dawn of the Twentieth Century there would be a decline in Britain’s global standing. But while a decline was inevitable, the early decades of the Twentieth Century actually saw an expansion rather than a contraction in British influence as the British Empire expanded as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and through the spoils of the First World War. But just as the British Empire was expanding, it was also the case that it was changing with the emergence of the Commonwealth and pressures for independence in the colonies.
British politicians and policy-makers would spend a great deal of the Twentieth Century debating how best to deal with these challenges of a changing global role through the emergence of other centres of economic power and the desire for independence in the colonies. For a long time – possibly far too long – there was a belief in the minds of British politicians that Britain could continue to have a global role. On the one hand, this was a position that was shaped by Britain having emerged victorious in the Second World War. On the other, it was based on the fact that Britain continued to have economic, political and security interests spread throughout the world and that British influence continued to be significant in postwar decades. For example, British coal and steel production was greater than many continental European countries in the 1950s and the British economy continued to grow in what became known as the ‘long boom’ that took place from 1945 until the early 1970s. This would lead Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to comment in 1957 that most Britons ‘have never had it so good’, while a decade later in 1967 Prime Minister Harold Wilson reflected that a ‘white heat of technology’ was revolutionising British competitiveness in science and technology.
Although there were some truths to these claims, it was also the case that in 1945 Britain was for all intents and purposes a bankrupt country and pretensions to global influence would be hard to maintain with limited financial backing. Moreover, Britain’s economic industrial base was also largely shaped by machinery and practices that tended to be a product of the pre-war period rather than the having fully embraced the modern industrial practices that came to the fore in the years after 1945. And when combined with the fact that many British companies were oftentimes operating in the not overly competitive environment of Empire and Commonwealth markets, a direct impact of this was that the British economy did not experience the same levels of growth rates that were enjoyed by many of its competitor countries, most notably France, Germany, Japan and the United States. This state of affairs was reflected in a decline in Britain’s share of world trade, which fell from 19 per cent in 1960 to 10 per cent in 1970.
These issues came to a head over Britain’s reaction to European integration. Winston Churchill’s view that ‘we are with Europe, but not of it’ summed up the position of policy-makers in the late 1940s and 1950s. In London, the view was that Britain’s interests would be best served by attaching emphasis to the Empire and by endeavouring to be a global power. In 1948 the then Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, set out a plan for Britain to be a so-called ‘Third Force’ in world politics which in effect meant that it would be a world leader that sat alongside the Soviet Union and the United States. On the one hand there was some justification for such an opinion. Britain played a leading role in many international organisations, such as having a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, was a leader of the Commonwealth, and continued to play a leading role in many technological developments such as nuclear power and the jet aircraft. Yet at the same time, the stretch marks on British influence were evident as early as 1947 through independence for India and being unable to support the government in Greece at a time of communist insurrection. The 1950s would see Britain have a humiliating exit from the Suez Crisis, while by 1962 the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had to use all his charm to persuade the youthful US President John F. Kennedy to provide Britain with the Polaris missile to ensure that the country could continue to have a delivery mechanism for its nuclear weapons. To many observers, this meant that Britain had become the 51st American state.
Although the nuclear links with the US helped to cement the so-called ‘special relationship’, the economic and political conditions that determined the need to secure access to Polaris emphasised the predicament that Britain found itself in. The 1960s would see Conservative and Labour governments endeavor to come to terms with the need to trim the sails of Britain’s global ambitions. This would be reflected in the very machinery of government, with the merger of the separate Foreign Office and Commonwealth Relations Office in 1968 to create the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This was a symbolic change that was also reflected in a decline in defense spending and a contraction in British overseas bases so that by the end of 1971 Britain had with the exception of Hong Kong abandoned all overseas bases East of Suez. Just as there was a change in British overseas military presences, the 1960s also witnessed a rapid shift away from Empire to Commonwealth as decolonisation took place at a considerable pace. But while decolonisation had been shaped by local demands in the countries concerned and Britain’s inability to support the development of the countries in a way that was deemed necessary, it was also the case the decolonisation resulted in a process of mass immigration to Britain which divided opinion within the country.
Of all the issues that Britain faced in this period, one of the most significant was the question of European integration. In the early 1960s Prime Minister Macmillan had come to the conclusion that Britain should seek membership of the new European club, the European Economic Community (EEC). This was a club that only a few years earlier in 1955 the British government had taken a somewhat superior view to by not fully participating in the negotiations that led to the signature of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 and which lay the foundation for the creation of the EEC on 1 January 1958. The French President, Charles de Gaulle, was not entirely convinced about Britain’s intentions for membership and spent much of the 1960s cementing French influence within the Community and keeping Britain out. By the 1970s the game seemed to be up for Britain. The country appeared to be on the precipice of economic disaster with three-day weeks being influenced by fuel shortages.
For the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, the answer was that Britain had to be a member of the European Community to preserve British influence and to inject some life into the British economy. Yet the benefits of membership did not initially materialise as the world economy went struggled to grow at a time of high oil prices that had been influenced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Britain, it seemed, had joined at the worst of times. There was also a lack of consensus among the political parties about the benefits of membership. This was particularly the case with the Labour Party, where Harold Wilson attempted to juggle the competing demands of warring political factions by holding a renegotiation and referendum on British membership in 1974 and 1975. The renegotiation provided some useful changes to the Community for Britain, but at the same time caused a lot of irritation and frustration among European leaders who questioned the wisdom of such action. More than anything else, such actions also highlighted the manner by which politicians were willing to put the issue of European integration before party loyalty and set a precedent that has continued to the present day.
Some four decades on from Britain’s accession to the European club it is apparent that far from having a settled relationship with Europe, Britain’s relationship is more problematic than ever as evidenced by the rise in popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment that a future Conservative government will have a referendum on British membership. In the eyes of the public at large, ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’ have become a byword for all that is wrong with Britain, ranging from excessive interference by European policy-makers to the changing landscape of British society through immigration. Yet at the same time, the intervening four decades have also seen British influence in Europe impact on many positive developments. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who vociferously campaigned for the liberalisation of trade across the European Community led the most notable of these developments. In her eyes, the single market program as it came to be known offered British companies the opportunity to access European markets that had hitherto been locked down by state regulation. Yet, this program of change also ushered in a whole gambit of policies, from interference in social affairs to the creation of a single currency, which were regarded by many as crucial to maximising the movement of people and goods across Europe. For Thatcher, such initiatives cut to the core of a nation state’s responsibility and as such she was adamantly opposed to their transfer to decision-making at a European level. Yet on this as with many other matters, her views were out of step with the views of both her Cabinet colleagues and fellow European leaders. In the end, the issue of European integration proved her nemesis and in late 1990 the uncharismatic John Major replaced her as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. At a time of considerable change at the European and global level, Major found it difficult to exercise control over his government and the Conservative Party who were increasingly rebellious about the intrusion of European policies into the everyday nooks and crannies of British politics.
Changes at a European level went hand-in-hand with broader global changes that have been reflected in the rise of China and the emergence of new power blocs in South America, Asia, the Gulf and Africa. In 2001, the former Goldman Sachs employee, Jim O’Neill, coined the acronym BRIC to refer to the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China that he regarded to be at the forefront of newly industrialised development. It is a term that has oftentimes been expanded to BRICs through the inclusion of South Africa. Over a decade later, he coined the term MINT to refer to the countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey which he considered would in the not to distant future have the capacity to join the world economic elite. While on the one hand these acronyms are catchy and popularist by virtue of their usability, they highlight the fundamental shift that is taking place in the ordering of world politics and which by its virtue has an inevitable impact on Britain’s own place in the world.
This is a world that has changed beyond recognition over the last three decades. The ending of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 on the one hand offered a sense of future peace and security as the Damocles sword of nuclear war was removed. Over twenty years later it is apparent that the world is not a safer place as the padlock of Cold War politics has been opened to create new tensions and conflicts that are not shaped in a traditional understanding of the power of nation states. This came to the fore of the publics’ attention through the bombing of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and which in turn resulted in a US-led war on terror that saw Britain commit to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US over the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. For the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, British commitment to this cause was because the world had been shaken and that there was a need to intervene to tackle the threat of terrorism. A few years earlier in 1999, Blair had spoken of the need for Britain to intervene in conflict zones in what became termed as the ‘doctrine of the international community’. This was a view that was shaped by the legacy of the conflict in the Balkans, where in the 1990s many Western countries – including Britain – had stood on the sidelines and watched ethnic cleansing take place with the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Crucially, however, Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be different propositions in terms of intervention. They were not quick fix missions and Britain’s deployment to Afghanistan would last thirteen years until October 2014. It would be the largest deployment since the Second World War and ostensibly stretch Britain’s military capacity to breaking point. While it could be argued that the deployments had the best of intentions, they were ill thought by political leaders who gave little consideration to the military implications in terms of operational capacity and post-invasion rebuilding. As the present turmoil in Iraq with the threat posed by Islamic State emphasises, Iraq and Afghanistan have not been moulded into the stable and safe countries that was envisaged at the time of intervention. For the British public at large, these military campaigns have also created a backlash against government and which in turn has meant that politicians have become less gung-ho in terms of a willingness to commit overseas. But while this is situation that has also been shaped by a reduction in Britain’s force capacity through a trimming of the size of the country’s armed forces, this inevitably creates moral and ethical dilemmas regarding decisions not to intervene in countries that are being torn apart by conflict. Syria is a notable example.
The question that therefore arises from this brief summary is what are the options for British foreign policy going forward? This is a question that is largely posed within the context of Britain’s relations with Europe where Eurosceptics argue that there is a need to either leave the European Union (EU) or to at the very least refashion Britain’s relations with the EU through an adjustment in its terms of membership. It is also the case that in terms of British politics, the question mark that hangs over the country’s relationship with the EU is for all intents and purposes an English one, given that the electorate of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have not registered the same level of disquiet over European integration. To this end, question relating to a possible withdrawal from the EU or a reshaping of the terms of membership also pose significant questions for the future of Britain. This is an aspect of policy that has been shaped by the policy of devolution which has seen greater powers being transferred to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh and which saw a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate vote for independence in the September 2014 referendum. While the outcome of the referendum vote was in favor of Scotland staying within the Union, the question that dominated the minds of many was the uncertainty that a vote in favor of independence would bring and the fact that Britain would have been considerably weakened by Scotland leaving.
In many ways these issues marry the debate as to whether Britain would be better off outside of the EU or not. For many people, the grass outside looks greener, but they are also uncertain about the implications. Yet, while questions relating to European integration seem to spark a great deal of emotional response, it is important to consider the implications if Britain was to leave. At the moment approximately 50 per cent of all of Britain’s trade is within the EU. For Eurosceptics this indicates that Britain has the capacity and ability to decide its own future outside of Europe. And while it is certainly true that Britain could survive outside of the EU, a critical argument is that Britain would not be part of the decision-making structures for where 50 per cent of its goods are traded and more importantly would not be part of the negotiations with non-EU countries that are for the most part shaped by European negotiations. The point here is whether people consider that a small island nation of 62 million people is able to exercise significant influence on the likes of China and India, each of which has a population in excess of 1 billion. These are issues that also extend beyond concerns about trade. The major threats to world politics today involve a degree of joined-up decision-making and responses. At a European level, a good example here is legislation on the environmental where the collective influence and weight of the 500 million people in the EU are able to exercise influence at a global level on environmental negotiations.
For Britain these issues have posed the dilemma as to whether it considers its position as a medium-sized military and economic power is best secured through its membership of the EU or outside of the EU through its relationship with America and other linkages such as the Commonwealth. In reality while Britain’s influence is secured through all of these mechanisms, it is first and foremost a European power. The challenge that Britain faces is in many ways more domestic than foreign, as the country’s political parties need to articulate a more reasoned and informed set of viewpoints that reflect the reality that Britain’s interests are fundamentally of a European nature and that the best way to defend the country’s position in a globalized world is through EU membership.
Alasdair Blair is Professor of International Relations and Head of the Department of Historical and Social Studies at De Montfort University. He is the author of eight books, including International Politics: An Introductory Guide (2009) and Companion to the European Union (2006).