Macmillan’s Game At an End

Britain must reinvent its place in the world again after “punching above its weight” for half a century.

British prime minister Harold Macmillan and President John F. Kennedy answer questions from reporters outside the White House in Washington DC, April 8, 1961
British prime minister Harold Macmillan and President John F. Kennedy answer questions from reporters outside the White House in Washington DC, April 8, 1961 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Since the “winds of change” swept Britain’s colonies scattered all about the globe, this sceptred isle on Europe’s northwestern flank has, as Harry Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson once put in, lost an empire and not yet found a role.

For the past half century or so, the United Kingdom enjoyed a position in the world quite disproportionate to its economic weight. Recent prime minister as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair consciously pursued a strategy aimed at maintaining that position. With the force of personality and sheer determination, they managed to elevate Britain into an international player above its natural station. But the next few years “are set to prove a watershed for a nation that has grown used to punching above its weight in foreign policy,” warns Philip Stephens, writing for the Financial Times.

The history of modern British foreign policy began in the early 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan realized that the sun was finally setting on the empire. He gathered the brightest minds of Whitehall to anticipate the inevitable transition and they proposed that while Britain’s power would certainly decline, “it does not follow that our status need necessarily do the same.” They understood that the country’s prestige could be amplified by its alliances and by shrewd diplomacy.

During the decades that followed, British policymakers worked to ensure that a “special relationship” came in effect with the United States. Militarily, the United Kingdom would always be NATO’s number two, a nuclear power and, up to this very day, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The decline could not be stopped however. Economic turmoil in the late 1960s forced Harold Wilson’s Labour government to give up all remaining outposts in Asia and the Gulf, effectively abandoning an imperial presence east of Suez. More recently, Britain’s performance in Afghanistan and Iraq has raised doubts in Washington about their ally’s military potential. “Your ambitions run ahead of what you can do,” is what one Obama Administration official reportedly determined.

Unlike his predecessor, Gordon Brown self consciously eschewed assertive internationalism and the Afghan War notwithstanding, was reluctant to commit forces as a pillar of British foreign policy. His possible successor as leader of the Labour Party, David Miliband, now foreign secretary, decries the “declinism” of those who imagine Britain accepting a passive place in world affairs however. He argues that the country’s national interest lies in engaging actively with European and NATO allies and maintaining a sizable defense budget.

Between the lines, David Cameron acknowledges the shift. “We do have a position of authority that greatly exceeds our size,” he told the Royal United Services Institute before expressing skepticism of “grand utopian schemes to remake the world.”

The new Conservative government faces further problems, notes Stephens. With Cameron pledged to loosen Britain’s place in the European Union, as prime minister, he will instinctively reach across the Atlantic to compensate for any dependency on Europe. “But the choice between the Channel and the Atlantic has long been something of an illusion” with President Barack Obama all the less unsentimental about the alliance than those who who went before him, no matter Vice President Biden’s assurances before the European Parliament last week. The special relationship belongs to another era.

What may be required is an assessment akin to that conducted by Macmillan fifty years ago. This may well turn out to be a jarring, bruising experience — “a reckoning that will force Britain to admit a much smaller place in world affairs.”

On the other hand, the Foreign Office wins the admiration of many of its counterparts abroad for its skill in amplifying Britain’s voice in the corridors of international power. What’s more, in spite of bombast claims to influence, many of the world’s rising powers are as of yet reluctant to shoulder the international burdens still carried by the West.

Logic may determine that as its global ambitions fade away, Britain should look to Europe but for the time being, it prefers to think of itself as something of an outsider on its own continent. Consider, for instance, the weariness of all major parties except the Liberal Democrats for giving up the pound in favor of the euro. Just a few years ago, Britons were hardly willing to exchange their blue passports for European reds!

Nonetheless, with the “special relationship” not so special anymore and Britain’s armed forces probably forced to endure further budget cuts in the near future, the country has little alternative but to become more of an integral member of the European Union unless it intends to be reduced to the second band of world powers. A Britain more committed to the EU would surely improve the potential of European might moreover. It will be a painful transition for Britain. But so was losing an empire.

Comments

  1. I’m afraid there’s a lot of (second-hand) conventional wisdom in this piece. Whether any of it matches the realities is a matter if opinion. Can i offer a diffwerent view?

    If only the author knew in what contempt Macmillan and his era are held in the modern UK and how unrepresenative that poor cuckold was: that era genuinely was a time of illusion, attempt after attempt, gimmick after gimmick, to evade the consequences of our economic weakness. In the end the weakness had to be dealt with and it was, even if it took another thirty years.

    This idea that the Empire was Britain’s identity – do you really think the superficial Acheson knew what he was talking about? The empire mattered for a few decades in the nineteenth century, that was all. Britain didn’t lose a “role”, it lost its national fortune in the two world wars. Britain, the ostensible “winner”, lost out because nobody could foresee that the destruction in mainland Europe would lead to the benefit of the replacement (with US money) of outdated national plant. If the UK had been bombed a lot more we would have prospered much sooner. Our Victorian plant wasn’t replaced, or junked, until the nineteen nineties when we could finally afford to finance the task.

    There is no interest in “punching above our weight” – a phrase first used by a survivor of defeatist Macmillan times Douglas Hurd. Whether we like it or not we have to negotiate the Atlantic waves: America is bigger and more powerful than the UK and as its enemy, therefore, national life would always be difficult or impossible or, as the Canadians and others have found, non-existent except as a client state.

    Western Europe, on the other hand, with its pathological political restlessness since the French Revolution, the latest manifestation of which is the fantastical EU, always threatens UK interests and freedoms when its still-surviving elitist political class acts in unison.

    British foreign policy consists of trying to minimise these dangers from east and west while remaining friends with both and pursuing its central role as financial & intellectual entrepot and transport hub for the Atlantic based on its location. Have a look at Buckminster Fuller’s map some time, showing the unique geographical position of the UK.

    Part of a foreign policy consists of talking sweetly while acting quietly and correctly. For thirty years the UK has understood that the EU was a project both doomed and, in its old-fashioned desire to be an anti-American “world force”, potentially dangerous – to itself, as usual, as well as to others.Britain is not strong enough to destroy that illusory thinking either financially, intellectually or militarily – and the military option in Europe is dead, not because of the Schumann-Monnet settlement but because of the power of modern weaponry to destroy
    both user and target on this continent.

    Personally I think the UK has done reasonably well in looking after itself and its citizens while not actually admitting how it does it. The “special relationship” deals with our western flank and keeps a dangerously powerful neighbour – though one with extensive personal and family links – at bay. Who cares if the price we pay is to be accused of sucking up to the big boy? Dream on!

    On the other flank we are doing equally well, thank you. The illusory thinking is gradually being exposed due to the British destruction of the Eurozone (none of our politicians will confirm this, don’t worry) by its twenty year struggle to divert the energies of the European Union from “deepening” to “widening” without them noticing. Who do you think brought Greece and the others in? And why do you think we did it? Why do you think the UK has been trying to get Turkey in as well? The French finally sussed that one before her entry acted as the final reductio ad absurdum of the European project. Otherwise things are going pretty well according to plan.

  2. Thanks for your insights, John! I’m not sure whether, in the end, we disagree all too much, but I’m curious about some points.

    Western Europe, on the other hand, with its pathological political restlessness since the French Revolution, the latest manifestation of which is the fantastical EU, always threatens UK interests and freedoms when its still-surviving elitist political class acts in unison.

    Tracing back Continental Europe’s current state of apparent political “restlessness” all the way back to 1789 seems a bit far-fetched. Besides, Europe is not all that restless in all places. I’m wondering though how exactly this is threatening British interests and moreso, British freedoms?

    The “special relationship” deals with our western flank and keeps a dangerously powerful neighbour […] at bay.

    How could America possibly by dangerous to the UK, if it weren’t for the special relationship? I don’t see much of a special relationship anymore, and Britain isn’t in peril, is it?

    Who do you think brought Greece and the others in? And why do you think we did it? Why do you think the UK has been trying to get Turkey in as well?

    Britain has consciously pushed for these countries’ membership — in order to destroy the EU from within? Why, I’d like to see some proof of that, sir!

  3. Hello.

    “Tracing back Continental Europe’s current state of apparent political “restlessness” all the way back to 1789 seems a bit far-fetched. Besides, Europe is not all that restless in all places. I’m wondering though how exactly this is threatening British interests and moreso, British freedoms?”

    Political restlessness is not a “current state of [note I said Western] Europe”. Political restlessness is a pervasive, probably permanent, West European problem which, in a brief post, I didn’t bother to find relevant any earlier than the ancien regime.When I say restlessness I not not mean political instability but – under the influence of idealist, particularly Hegelian,philosophy – the search for a greater political mission than simply feeding and protecting one’s people and preserving their liberties which politicians, not peoples, cannot resist. It is now quite clear that in democratic societies that is quite enough, indeed more than enough, for the rather inferior people who go into politics to get on with. To wish to add to the mundane task of keeping one’s society free and as materially well-provided as possible the implementation of the various supranational fantasies that sweep Europe every few decades – chronologically Metternichian reaction, communard revolution, imperialism, acute (rascist) nationalism, communism, fascism, European union – is simply to ask for more than those limited creatures, the politicians, can possibly accomplish.They find it hard to enough just to carry out a term of office without being arrested or disgraced.

    Not for nothing is the word “dream” used of so many of these disastrous enterprises – as if that legitimises them! A dream, by definition, is something that is neither based on nor exists in reality. And perhaps I could ask how many of the European movements of the last 190 years listed above were ever the result of democratic pressure from “below”. Not one, except possibly nineteenth century German nationalism.

    “How could America possibly by dangerous to the UK, if it weren’t for the special relationship? I don’t see much of a special relationship anymore, and Britain isn’t in peril, is it?”

    All societies are always in peril. Until utopia arrives. The peril can be military, political, financial or cultural. The relationship with America was re-assessed early in the last century when it became clear that the Royal Navy could no longer maintain parity with the US navy. That is when we made our choices – and acted on them. The SR is our way of handling an overwhelmingly strong neighbour and, because of the personal links between the two countries – check out the death list of 9/11 victims and note how many were British – it suits us. If you believe that the French approach to the same problem is any more successful then you are, of course, entitled to your opinion.

    But let me add on the question of “peril”. Ever since Suez we have tried to ensure that we won’t face threats from America that we cannot counter – which of course involves alliance with European nations. There have been none from America since 1956; whether that is because we act as America’s humble lap dog or not is for you to decide. I can, however, assure you that we faced threats, real and explicit threats, from the European Union from 1990 onwards – basically that if we failed to join the union we would have to “face the consequences” some time in the future.

    “Britain has consciously pushed for these countries’ membership — in order to destroy the EU from within? Why, I’d like to see some proof of that, sir!”

    You certainly won’t get it from me – I’ve already said more than perhaps I should about the matter. Ask French politicians. But I will say: if someone threatens you and the threat is real, even if it is based on an unrealistic dream, then you take measures to counter those threats…

  4. On the matter of political restlessness and all, I suspect we’re more or less in agreement, except that I don’t see a current, real threat to British interests, let alone freedoms, at this point. I must admit to being some of a Europhile though, in spite of my libertarian views.

    If you believe that the French approach to the same problem is any more successful then you are, of course, entitled to your opinion.

    Touche! Though, still, I don’t see America as much of a “problem” even to the French, except when, perhaps, when some call to boycott their cheese? Indeed, as I noted in my previous post, say there were no special relationship, would Britain truly be bothered by the United States much? It probably would be in less of a favorable position internationally, and perhaps even worse off economically, but under threat? I don’t think so.

    You certainly won’t get it from me – I’ve already said more than perhaps I should about the matter.

    If that’s so, I won’t press you. But you’ll forgive me, I trust, for remaining skeptical?

    I can, however, assure you that we faced threats, real and explicit threats, from the European Union from 1990 onwards – basically that if we failed to join the union we would have to “face the consequences” some time in the future.

    […]

    But I will say: if someone threatens you and the threat is real, even if it is based on an unrealistic dream, then you take measures to counter those threats…

    Come now, you wouldn’t let the French of all people get you into doing something you don’t want to do, would you?

    I’m teasing of course, but let me ask you this: do you think Britain would be better off today if it weren’t in the European Union? (That’s not to legitimize any coercion, if there were any, mind you, but I’m wondering, especially since my country, for one, has profited immensely from open borders, the single market, even the common currency in spite of recent turmoil. Then again, the Netherlands is quite a different economy from the UK’s, and I’m not sure about the British case.)

  5. Hello again, and thank you for an interesting debate. To take your last point first. No, I don’t think there would be much difference “better-off” wise whether we are in or out, for various reasons. But objections to the EU are not necessarily concerned only with a full stomach.

    Looking more broadly: I have great respect for the Dutch people. You will hear from the British end much about “outward-looking” politics and attitudes as against what they consider “inward-looking” from the EU movement. I would suggest, with great respect, that the Netherlands no longer has a choice which way to “look”. The UK still has and is, so far, determined to retain it. Your people were, like the British, an outward looking one with all the wonderful attributes that accompany that, particularly intellectual freedom. One of our greatest philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, was published in your country long before it was possible to publish him in our own.

    You also have a tremendous tradition of political asylum and what I would call “democratic instincts”. Every time I visit the National Gallery I am reminded that your civilization, as mirrored by Rembrandt and De Hooch and his followers, as well as the sublime Vermeer, was perhaps the first to turn away from heroic models and pursue a bourgeois vision which has conquered most of Western Europe. (I am perfectly aware of the bloodshed and cruelty which accompanied your overseas adventures).

    Nevertheless you have never had enough national territory in Europe to feed a population as big as your neighbours’ and as a result you no longer have much ability to protect yourself from the whims of those same neighbours, whose depredations, while forgivable and forgiven, took place quite recently. So do you, as a Dutchman, have any choice but to hook into the European (EU) dream – the current whim of your neighbours? Do you believe that the bureaucracy of the EU, with its unreadable treaties and mysterious “directives”, its armour plated cars and police escorts for the “leaders” heading to address the ludicrously named European “parliament”, its inflated self-importance and all the rest of it, ties in with the vision of what ordinary people want immortalised by de Hooch? Do you really?

    I repeat, I do not believe that the European Union is a democratic organization. I believe it is a backward-looking attempt to provide another “Great Power” as an outlet for the mistaken dreams of its restless political class. I am also a Europhile, but in a different sense to you. My friends and family are scattered all over Europe; I love Europe and have spent much time there, learning from the different communities. But I have a deep distrust of its politicians – not its people – and I suggest that my distrust is firmly grounded in the evidence of both past and present.

    With all this talk of Greece and its faults I suggest that you travel and see the disconnect between peoples and politicians in other parts. I know Italy well: their country is ravishingly beautiful, the people wonderful, but politically they are a disaster area whose problems are being made worse by the European Union which, of course, provides funding – quickly stolen by their mafia and politicians (check the progress of the Sicily bridge) – and a stage for their opera bouffe politicians (de Michaelis!) to strut on before they are, as always, arrested or disgraced. The Italians deserve something more, something which can help make them believe that democracy can work UPWARDS from the community. What form this will take one day I do not know, but it will have nothing to do with the nonsensical structures of the EU and its disgraceful enrichment of its so-called representatives.

    Spain has an authoritarian political structure beneath a façade of democracy, once again combined with graft at the local level. I have lived in Spain and have great respect for them as a people. But do you really think that the ridiculous – try reading the Treaty of Maastricht – structures of the EU will help the Spanish make the transition to real democracy? Or do they see it as just another fiddle, just another financial feeding trough for the clever and connected ones – the “others”, those “up there”, as my own experience of them suggests they do.

    Without being offensive, all the Benelux countries, particularly the non-states Belgium and Luxemburg, see the EU as a bigger stage to act on and therefore support the EU. How about a future where politicians become smaller, not bigger, not swanning off with their giant salaries and immunity from prosecution, strutting the stage of history. I’m sorry but I believe – don’t be shocked – that the EU politicians still have a Fuhrerprinzip, a belief in “leadership”, that they can see further ahead than the poor little citizen, that they can turn dreams into reality. What crap! I’ll give you one definition of “leadership”, that provided by the British Army: the art of getting people to do what they don’t want to do. To the EU the people of Europe remain what they were fifty, sixty, seventy years ago – units to be fitted into the dreams of politicians. What happened to your vision from Delft?

    I’m sorry but I’ve used too much space on this one theme. I’ll try and come back to your other points another time. Regards.

  6. I am in danger of using up more than my fair share of space but, with your permission, can I add some further thoughts than might make the UK position more understandable to fellow Europeans?

    What is the optimum population size for a democratic community? The United States shines out as a superpower with around 300 million on a huge productive territory free for renewed exploitation by every generation. The military and other power provided by this example dazzles the leaders of the EU. The theory, of course, is that a political entity of about the same size or bigger needs to be put together to rival the power and pretensions of the US, particularly with the emergence of other large population centres such as India and China.

    Yes, so far the US has pulled it off but the future is never a simple extrapolation from the present. Whether the Hispanic influx will eventually cause some sort of schism we cannot know. But the US may, anyway, be sui generis, a unique Weltstadt, continuing to draw in Europeans and others disgusted with what their “leaders” do in their name.

    My own opinion is that there is a conflict between the Realpolitic desire for a 400+ million community (i.e. a group that can act as a bloc in power negotiations and confrontations) and the need for democratic responsiveness and flexibility. My own subjective belief is that 50-90 million on a contiguous territory is the appropriate maximum for effective democracy.

    India, as anyone unfortunate enough to watch IPL cricket will know, is going through an excitable period of self-love and the scent of possible power. We can wish her luck and be thankful that her people’s living standards are improving but any idea that power is flowing to her in other ways than as a cheap source of labour needs a lot more evidence to support it before the case for marshalling united European resources to check her is proven. China has economic power and good luck to her too but we simply don’t know if two units the size of India and China can be maintained for the future in the first rank of trading powers.

    Russia clearly is shrinking back to a more unified and manageable core and the idea, which the early proponents of the EU had, that her population would enable her to dominate Europe economically and militarily, has been exposed as an illusion. She is still going backwards and needs our understanding and support.

    Nevertheless “Europe” represents some sort of entity and it is prudent to seek ways in which it can act in unison when faced by external challenges and threats. Then, however, we are faced with the “optimum size for a democracy” problem.

    This is the split between the UK and the “leaders” of the EU. The British have a belief, correct or otherwise, that the solution lies in using existing national structures, all of which fit into my suggested optimum population level, as the basic sovereign units accompanied by ad hoc horizontal bodies for the pursuit of standardization where necessary, and then with treaty agreements to work and act together on relationships with the outside world. It follows, naturally, that there cannot be a supranational authority, there can be no European law, no European Court, no European parliament and only a secretariat, not a Commission.

    That there is no convincing detailed blueprint for such a scheme is not surprising. For whatever reasons the Roman Law/leadership-from-above model has been the only one in town.

    Within Europe, there seems to have been a widespread dismissal of the UK’s democratic objections to the EU as an indulgence, a cover for our real motives. This is quite mistaken. The UK battle over European entry in the 1970s was a straight split between the democrats – at that time led by Michael Foot – and a coalition of businessmen and a Tory party led by the extremely undemocratic Edward Heath, most of the latter speaking from essentially defeatist grounds that we “couldn’t risk being left out.”

    In debates Heath seemed unable even to understand the pro-democracy arguments that were put to him by Foot, but then Heath was a shallow-thinking, ill-educated corporatist who greatly damaged democracy in this country before being thrown out on his ear. I can assure you that Foot’s arguments – most cogently put by that otherwise muddled-thinking politician – were never countered, let alone overcome, in those debates.

    That was a long time ago but in the interim an entire generation has taken positions of authority who were brought up under the influence of 1960s ideas of democracy from below, of a smaller, less-threatening, body politic, of the possibility of giving more power to the people in a world where readiness for war is no longer the aim of the sovereign state. The internet has given enormous impetus to these (in my view correct) ideas. The new Prime Minister David Cameron is a product of this intellectual climate.

    So make no mistake, despite what I said earlier about protecting one’s country from threats and looking outwards from England – that hinterland surrounding our city-state, the World City, London – and despite my criticisms of the “unreality” of the project, it is a widely shared belief in democracy and what we see as not just a democratic deficit in the EU but an incurable democratic void, that motivates much, perhaps most, of our opposition to it.

    The political leaders of the EU have been quite content to use idealists like yourself while silently attempting to construct a superpower bloc. Long may you believe in Europe. We both have a struggle ahead of us: people once in the grip of a dream will never be able to step out of it so the break-up of the EU will be forced on the dreamers by events – with all the intellectual and cultural chaos this will cause.

  7. Thanks for your kind words about the Dutch, John. We have been an outward-looking nation for many centuries, in many regards and in spite of a recent wave of renewed nationalism, I do hope we remain that way.

    So do you, as a Dutchman, have any choice but to hook into the European (EU) dream […]

    I suppose not, but then again, as you have probably understood by now, at least where the Netherlands is concerned, I don’t see any problems with regards to greater European union.

    Do you believe that the bureaucracy of the EU, with its unreadable treaties and mysterious “directives”, its armour plated cars and police escorts for the “leaders” heading to address the ludicrously named European “parliament”, its inflated self-importance and all the rest of it, ties in with the vision of what ordinary people want immortalised by de Hooch?

    I think you’re both exaggerating the EU and overestimating the niceties of Dutch traditions. Know that up to the nineteenth century, the Netherlands weren’t really so democratic. In fact, it was very much a state dominated by economic interests, which, to a great extent, accounts for its prosperity at the time and its disproportionate place in world affairs.

    You mention Italy and Spain and I suppose this goes for Greece as well — do you honestly believe that if it weren’t for the EU, these countries would be better off politically? As I see it, they’ve been corrupt and dysfunctional for years, decades, centuries even. Their political traditions simply do not align with those of the northwestern European states. The only thing that might change that, I think, is the EU — but it’ll take time.

    Some general notes on the EU and democracy…

    There is much to be improved. We now have a constant interplay between the supposedly democratic Parliament, which doesn’t have much power, and the rather undemocratic Commission and Council, where, on the other hand, member states do have greater power as such. In the future, I suspect we’ll see the relationship between Parliament and Commission intensify, with the ultimate outcome leaving the Commission as a proper executive, checked by the Parliament. Again — this will take time.

    I’m rather less mistrustful of European bureaucrats. If you read some of my other stuff here, you’ll know that I’m a libertarian, and always value less government instead of more; that I believe a constant skepticism toward the intentions of politicians is healthy and quite necessary in a democracy. But when we talk about the EU’s mandarins, my sense is that these people are sincere, hard-working public servants who, by al means, should have less power, but have no ill intentions.

  8. Thanks for the response. I hope that I have at least given you some idea of the cultural and intellectual superstructure lying behind British (English) skepticism about the EU.

    I have no wish to draw you into more disagreement – you may already be finding my contributions wearisome – but I am baffled by your references to libertarianism and the EU. I am also a life-long libertarian and the EU is, by definition surely, more government not less.

    But never mind. An interesting discussion. Thank you.

  9. I realize that it may seem like something of a contradiction — libertarianism and the European Union. Perhaps I’m a bit of an optimist in this regard though.

    Thanks for this little discussion. It’s good to get some insight in how people in different countries, Britain especially, think of the EU.