Britain’s attitudes may have been shaped by its imperial past, but it defines and pursues its interests like any other state, writes Gideon Rachman
It is the quote that has launched a thousand articles. Dean Acheson’s remark that ‘Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’ was made fifty years ago, in 1962. Ever since, it has been held up as a uniquely pithy summary of the Great British foreign policy dilemma.
If, as seems likely, the UK is about to enter another agonised debate about its relationship with the European Union, the Acheson quote is bound to be rolled out yet again.
In Brussels, Britain’s coolness towards the European project is often attributed to some form of post-imperial delusion. ‘The British still think they are a great power’, so it is said, ‘that is why they behave in this peculiar way.’ At some point, somebody will add sagely, that Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States is not all it’s cracked up to be. And, as for the Commonwealth … don’t even get them started.
But the idea that Britain is uniquely loaded down by historical baggage does not make much sense in a European context. German foreign policy is clearly more profoundly shaped by the history of the 20th century. For their own historical reasons – France, Spain, Italy and Poland – also have reasons to be deeply attached to the idea of the European integration. For France, Europe has been the obvious solution to the threat of superior German power; for Italy, the EU has offered an attractive alternative to a dysfunctional Italian state; for Spain, it promised an end to the isolation and backwardness of the Franco era; for Poland, membership ended the era when their nation was on the wrong side of a wall dividing the continent.
Naturally enough, Britain’s history also shapes its attitude to the European project. But that history amounts to much more than post-imperial nostalgia. Like France, Germany and Poland, Britain’s attitudes to the world have been moulded by the memories of the Second World War. But, for the British, the morals drawn from 1939–45 were rather different from those of their neighbours. They include a lingering suspicion of European politics – and a certain pride in the notion that Britain can go it alone, if necessary.
For Britain, the Houses of Parliament are both the symbol and basis of national democracy. The story of Parliament’s struggle for sovereignty is a central part of the country’s history. As a result, Britain has found the idea of making the decisions of Parliament subordinate to European law unusually difficult.
There is, however, little evidence of post-imperial nostalgia among the British public. The history of the Empire is not much taught in schools – perhaps because it is embarrassingly ambiguous, unlike the story of Britain standing alone in 1940.
One legacy of empire, however, is that there are English-speaking nations all over the world. But the British tendency to look to the ‘Anglosphere’ is more than a mere nostalgic reflex. The ‘English-speaking world’ is a genuine cultural and political phenomenon – with ramifications that affect business, finance, immigration, diplomacy and intelligence-sharing. It remains a fact, for example, that intelligence co-operation between the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand has a depth, and a level of mutual trust, that is not yet replicated within Europe.
This British tendency to look towards the English-speaking world, as well as across the Channel, can be dismissed as mere nostalgia for the days of Empire. But that misses the point. The existence of an ‘Anglosphere’ enlarges Britain’s foreign policy options. Sometimes, as during the Iraq war, it also creates difficult choices and dilemmas. But it certainly ensures that there is a distinctive British approach to the world that is different from those of its European partners.
It is true that British diplomacy still reflects a determination to hang on to some of the totems of great power status – in particular permanent membership of the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons and a military that is capable of fighting overseas. An uncharitable interpretation would be that this sort of behaviour reflects the continuing truth of Acheson’s dictum. A more realistic view might simply be that Britain is behaving as most nation states normally do – trying to maximize its power and influence, by using all the instruments at its disposal.
The unglamorous truth is that Britain is neither a great power, nor a post-imperial basket case. It is a nation that attempts to define its interests and then pursue them – much as other nations do, all over the world.