international analysis and commentary

Britain: undecided at home, uncertain abroad


Following the formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Britain is set for a rocky and uncertain future. What is clear though, is that its international role will shrink. With its soaring debt (which is projected to stand around 12% of the GDP), a hung parliament and an inherently unstable government, attention and resources will be focused domestically. Long gone are the Blair years which saw a confident and economically booming Britain treading the world stage energetically, advocating for humanitarian interventions, leading the aid agenda, and willingly engaging in warfare in the Greater Middle East. The shift towards a less internationalist and more pragmatic foreign policy was already evident during the Gordon Brown years, but Britain’s current economic and political crises are forcing it to radically re-examine its place in the world. Three areas in particular are currently being reassessed: Britain’s relation with its American transatlantic partner, its role within Europe and its overall foreign policy priorities.

Stung by the flirtation with America, Britain is increasingly backing away from its self-described “special relationship” with Washington. Indeed, to most in the UK the returns from its close alliance with the US seem diminishing. Following a misguided war in Iraq and the financial tsunami which struck London as Wall Street crashed in 2007-2008, Britons are overtly disenchanted by their larger cousins. Chatham House, a London-based think tank, has recently dubbed the transatlantic alliance the “asymmetrical relationship”. A 14-member cross-party foreign affairs parliamentary committee report released this spring, urged the government to adopt a more hard-headed approach to the US. It argued that the terminology “special relationship” should be dropped, as it did not reflect today’s political reality. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg, respectively the leaders of the Conservative and Lib Dem parties forming UK’s new coalition government, have been openly critical of London’s poodle-like relationship with Washington. Commenting on the transatlantic alliance, Mr. Cameron has argued for a “solid, but not slavish” relationship with America, while Mr. Clegg has warned against the “default Atlanticism” of the past, favoring a “rebalanced partnership”.

As the UK drifts apart from the US, does this mean it floats closer to Europe? Not really. Two are the key reasons. Firstly, the Conservatives, and with them their newly appointed Prime Minister David Cameron, are historically skeptical of the European Union. Mr. Cameron has campaigned throughout the election on an anti-EU platform: arguing for a “referendum lock” on any further transfer of power to Brussels; proposing to negotiate a return of powers on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, criminal justice, and social and employment legislation; and permanently rejecting any euro membership. Euro-skepticism is so prevalent among Conservatives that, Mr. Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” offer to the Lib Dems for a coalition government was extended to negotiating and working together on crucial domestic matters such as tax reform, education, restoring civil liberties, and reducing the debt, but not on key Conservative foreign policy priorities such as any further European integration or reducing Britain’s nuclear capabilities. The strongly Europhile Mr. Clegg will have to toe the Conservative anti-EU line if he is keen to continue sharing power in the years to come.

The second reason why the UK won’t be rushing to strengthen its ties with the EU centers on broader deflated expectations about the European project itself. Here the conduct of Labour is key. Indeed while Conservatives have always been EU-skeptics and the Lib Dems EU-enthusiasts, Labour and the British public more generally tend to oscillate between the two positions. Labour’s openly pro-European stance of the past, particularly during the Blair years, has visibly swung the other way round. Gordon Brown, has always been more skeptical about adopting the euro than Mr. Blair ever was. A clear statement of British feeling towards European integration came during the campaign when stanch Labour supporter Gillian Duffy appeared more Conservative-like when complaining to Mr. Brown about Eastern Europeans invading her town (the episode then turned into the infamous “bigotgate”). In a recent deal among EU governments to provide a 750 billion euro rescue plan for the euro area economies, the post-election Labour interim-government largely abstained from the negotiations making sure Britain did not get dragged into any deal. Overall, it appears clear that many Britons have lost their appetite for more Brussels-driven top-down integration measures.

Unsure on which shore of the Atlantic to lean on, Britain will also find itself increasingly forced to cut back its own foreign commitments. Given the seriousness of the economic crisis and its burgeoning deficit, both Conservatives and Lib Dems have committed themselves to holding a Strategic Defence Review. This will reassess the country’s foreign policy priorities in light of the inevitable budget cuts which will fall in the diplomatic service and armed forces. With troops actively engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and another 25 locations, countless reports have warned about the state of a vastly over-stretched and under-resourced military. With a nominal GDP in 2008 ranking sixth in the world and in per capita terms only tenth among the European league tables, Britain has for too long punched above its weight and downsizing awaits it. Along with its capacity to be internationally-relevant, its willingness seems waning as well. During the electoral campaign, Britain’s role in the world hardly arose any interest or discussions. The second televised debate, which was supposed to be on foreign policy, soon veered away from the topic. Following some pertinent questions on Afghanistan, Europe and nuclear deterrence, the discussion quickly turned to solar panels, papal visits, bus passes, pension benefits and eye doctors. No one in the public deemed relevant asking the candidates what their thoughts were on a nuclearizing Iran, a failing Pakistan or a rising China. 

Britain today appears increasingly unsure about what kind of change it wants. This domestic indecision spells uncertainty abroad. Although it has grown disillusioned by its no-longer so-special transatlantic relationship, the UK is nevertheless reluctant to embrace a more proactive role in Europe. Nor here nor there, rather than bridging the Atlantic as it once believed it could do, the British islands appear drifting alone in the ocean’s waters. In parallel, saddled by a huge deficit and an over-stretched military, London will be less able and willing to commit further resources internationally. That free bus passes sparked Mr. Cameron’s rage the most during the televised debate on foreign policy, speaks volumes about Britain’s dwindling future international role.