Nobody with the slightest humanity could equate the horrific events in Kabul with McDonalds running out of milk shakes. Yet in recent UK news broadcasts, stories of mildly inconvenient food shortages at home have vied for viewers’ attention with the desperate plight of families 4,000 miles away. In their very different ways, both stories give fresh urgency to an old question, now that London has turned its back on Brussels, and Washington has turned its back on London: what should be Britain’s place in the world?
In recent years the answers have often rested on two illusions that Boris Johnson’s government has fought to sustain: that the UK really does have a special relationship with the United States, and that Brexit would enhance prosperity at home and Britain’s influence abroad. Johnson combined these notions into an ambitious prospectus he labelled “Global Britain”.
In their different ways, the departures of troops from Kabul and milk shakes from McDonalds lay bare the illusions of “Global Britain”. The term has become a target of mockery, much as Tony Blair’s “Third Way” did twenty years ago and David Cameron’s “Big Society” ten years ago. In fairness both of those terms embraced a worthy idea (Blair sought to shake off the stale struggle between “left” and “right”, while Cameron wanted to expand the role of community action in the life of the nation). The challenge is for such labels is to set down roots and command respect before their critics manage to drown them in mockery. Blair and Cameron failed; Johnson is well on his way to following them.
The end-game in Afghanistan came as a double shock: the speed with which the Taliban seized control of the country, together with President Biden taking crucial decisions without consulting America’s allies. Britain was far from alone in being caught out. However, the UK claims to possess among the world’s finest diplomatic and intelligence services, and also to have its “special relationship” with the United States. In recent weeks, neither has prevented humiliation..
Johnson’s worst moment came when, with Britain the current Chair of the G7 group of nations, he summoned a virtual meeting to agree a way forward in Afghanistan. His main, and very public, objective was to persuade Biden to extend the deadline for finally leaving Kabul airport beyond August 31. Biden flatly refused. The point is not that this rebuff represented a sudden lurch in America’s attitude towards its allies: it didn’t. Rather, the point is that it surprised a Prime Minister who clung to the illusion that London had unique access to Washington’s corridors of power.
As for McDonalds, and other stories of food shortages in Britain: so far, there is no real crisis. Yes, some fast-food restaurants have closed because of a shortage of chickens; but plenty of food is still available. However, the gaps on supermarket shelves are widening, as the number of lorry drivers declines. Voters are beginning to get grumpy, and things could get worse. There is talk that, along with other growing problems with food supplies, turkeys will be in short supply this Christmas.
A variety of reasons lie behind these stories, not least the impact of Covid on people’s lives and jobs. Many EU citizens who drove lorries to, from and within Britain, have returned to their home countries. Seasonal EU workers who come to the UK each year to help in Britain’s farms and orchards, have not come this year.
However, much of the labour shortage is a result of Brexit. With freedom of movement ended, EU workers coming to the UK need jobs that appear on a list of vital occupations. This list does not include lorry drivers. Britain’s business leaders want the Government to relax the rules. So far, British ministers have turned them down flat.
The political strains of this and other features of Brexit are starting to tell. The normally pro-Government Mail on Sunday has given space to Archie Norman, the Chairman of Marks and Spencer and a former leading Conservative MP, to bemoan the red tape that, along with the shortage of lorry drivers, is strangling the import and export of food to and from the EU post-Brexit; and the paper’s main editorial strongly backed Norman. True, Norman also criticised out-dated EU rules. The larger truth, though, is that, on this as on so many other things, the UK chose Brexit without comprehending the full consequences of its decision.
Given all this, what should now be Britain’s place in the world? I must disappoint anyone who expects a full answer in this blog. But a good starting point for discussing a way forward is a thoughtful recent column by William Hague in The Times. Hague was Britain’s Foreign Secretary from 2010 to 2014. He had been an unsuccessful Conservative party leader some years ago, but acquired respect for his time overseeing UK Foreign Policy. (He is now reported to be a possible British candidate to be the next Secretary-General of NATO.)
Implicitly disowning the nationalist strand of pro-Brexit opinion in his own party, as well as reflecting on the lessons of Afghanistan, Hague argued that Britain should co-operate closely with other countries in the service of a clear doctrine of international engagement. He concluded: “The right posture for western democracies is to be prepared to intervene when our own security or common humanity demands it. That means maintaining armed forces equipped for such action, but it also requires the political staying power to make all those who are hostile to free nations afraid of what we might do.”
What would this glimmer of an idea for Britain’s future role mean in practice? Hague offered a concrete example: “The piracy that began to plague shipping in the Indian Ocean was defeated by an international military force, co-ordinated with African countries and headquartered in Britain.”
Quite right. A decade ago, piracy was a huge issue, disrupting one of the world’s main shipping routes. We no longer hear of it because of the success of Operation Atalanta.
If this is regarded as a model for future international action, Hague omitted two facts that may be worth mentioning. The first is that Operation Atalanta was set up and run by the European Union.
The second is that it still at work, but with the UK now playing a diminished role. Since Brexit, Atalanta’s operational headquarters have moved to Spain. It’s just one example of how “Global Britain” is working out in practice.
This blog was first published by Carnegie Europe