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By Jason Michael

GREAT BRITAIN, the political incorporation of England (and England’s Wales) and Scotland under England’s suzerainty, was a move on the part of the Kingdom of England of quite some considerable genius. Making way for a brief period in European history known as l’hégémonie anglaise (1716-35), the eighteenth century architects of the British state – many of whom were truly gifted men – had the foresight to understand that the incorporation of Scotland into England qua Great Britain not only removed a potential colonial competitor, but also ended the possibility of England’s complete encirclement by hostile continental powers in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-11) – a time of real danger for the English state and the future of its apotheosised Protestant succession. Effectively swallowing Scotland, which at the time was in a regnal union with its southern neighbour, closed the backdoor to Louis XIV by isolating the Scots from their Auld Alliance and eventually turning them into the foot soldiers of British expansionism.

Britain, as we know it, and the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland from 1801 was not what we might call an organic nation, but the result of a military stratagem conjured as the 1st Duke of Marlborough contemplated the difficulties of at once maintaining and increasing England’s influence in Europe while keeping it secure from the ambitions of the Bourbons and indeed the Habsburgs over the Channel. The solution was the formulation of a Grand Strategy, a sometimes soft, sometimes hard politics of influence and intervention across Europe designed to keep England in European affairs and keep the Europeans out of English affairs – and, more importantly, out of England. So well did this policy work, with England always ensuring enough European division, that England – then Great Britain and the United Kingdom – managed to escape constant military entanglement on the continent and build a global empire.

By the 1930s the Grand Strategy was still very much a core feature of British foreign policy, this time geared to the security of the home islands and imperial defence. This was the heart of Britain’s global strategy through the war of 1914-18 and very much the thinking which directed London’s response to Nazi German aggression after the German invasion of Poland. The British Expeditionary Force’s ignominious flight from Dunkirk and the subsequent Battle of Britain – England’s ‘darkest hour’ – revisited upon England the fearful spectre of encirclement. With Operation Weserübung bringing Denmark and Norway under German control and the fall of France in June 1940, England’s greatest fear had been realised; a single European power with a potential ally in Franco’s Spain had trapped Britain hard against the Atlantic. Blitzkrieg had ended the Grand Strategy.

Yet, after the defeat of Hitler and the breakup of Germany the plan was back in action. The UK has essentially played the diplomatic game according to this doctrine from the Battle of Blenheim to the Brexit referendum, and now it is all coming unstuck again. Britain’s embarrassing departure from Europe will be the first time in over three centuries England has been reduced to zero influence on the continent, and this is all happening at a time when Marlborough’s worse nightmare is being realised – Europe more closely aligned in a common project and England on the outside looking in. And what would have the old duke turning in his grave is the thought that England has done this to itself. By a series of staggering political blunders, a string of breath-taking acts of hubris and sheer arrogance, and one whopping and disgraceful act of bad faith – the signalled intention to break international law in violation of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty – Britain has singlehandedly consigned itself beyond the pale of trusted involvement in the Europe of the future.

Pacta sunt servanda. Unless states keep their word, the whole international order begins to break down. Deals cannot be made with states which cannot be trusted, and even the threat of breaking a treaty seriously undermines the confidence other states have in the ‘rogue.’ This is where Britain now stands, on the outside looking in without a single friend who trusts it enough to open a door. Britain has not merely decided to leave the European Union, it has found itself locked out. Try as it might to console its misguided and manipulated citizens, the truth of the ‘internal market’ is economic and diplomatic isolation – the very forms of state alienation Marlborough and the eighteenth-century architects of Great Britain knew would lead to its inevitable destruction.

Since it was first conceived, Britain was a commercial enterprise and this model of its statehood and international relations has remained unchanged since Blenheim. Its vindictive actions against Scotland’s Darien scheme, its own colonial expansion, and its empire were all essentially driven by London’s commercial interests. Moves in the 1950s and 1960s to bank the wealth of empire in the City of London and illegally in former – quasi independent – colonies like Jersey and the Caymans only confirmed this and set the course for Britain to continue its international commerce in a new kind of financial services empire. But no man is an island, and Britain always understood its empire, in whatever form it took, balanced delicately on the good grace of other states over which it had some degree of economic and political influence. Brexit ends this, and now the harsh reality of its predicament is dawning on the new – the lesser and inferior – architects of ‘Global Britain.’ It is one thing to act in bad faith towards the dominated people and nations of empire, but it is quite another thing to be thought a bad actor by other, more powerful, states.

Boris Johnson, the British prime minister who even the Germans now mock as a clownish version of Hitler, may wish to shift all the blame to Europe, but the British ruling class; the people with real power in the British state – the superrich and the financial elite – see the real difficulty: Dealing with Brussels is a walk in the park compared to trade negotiations with Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. Strangely enough, Europe has England’s best interests at heart because Europe has Europe’s best interests at heart – and England, albeit part of an island, is still very much part of that main. Washington has no concern for the wellbeing of London or Edinburgh or Cardiff. Washington is as ambitious an empire as Britain ever was, and now England is the prey. China and Russia, well … their designs are far less pleasant for little England.

The ideologues of Global Britain, the Brexiteers, are stupefied in their fetishisation of wartime; of the Somme and Passchendaele, of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, but they are idiotically and wilfully blind to the memories of their own historical victims. India and Ireland remember what Britain did to them, and much of this happened after British soldiers ran for their lives from the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain’s former colonial and imperial ‘possessions’ have no desire to do England any favours. Barbados has recently declared its intention to become a sovereign and independent Republic, citing its desire to no longer linger on the steps of its colonial past. Barbados remembers what Britain did to the enslaved of Africa on British plantations. And neither is this remembering a resentment. Britain flatters itself if it imagines this. No, this is indifference. Britain’s former colonies couldn’t care less what happens to Britain – they want to forget.

Europe, or more precisely Britain’s ability to influence Europe to its own advantage, has always been the key to Britain’s economic and political success. Removed from Europe and without any influence over the politics of the EU, Britain – or more precisely England – finds itself returned to the days before l’hégémonie anglaise, to a reality more akin to Tudor England than Hanoverian Britain, to a reality in which England is subject to and not the object of the winds of change. Removed from Europe, England no longer offers Scotland any advantage and it becomes an obstacle to the ambitions of Wales, Ireland, and its own working people. Without Europe, England exposes itself to all the social tensions it has created within itself – tensions which only found some kind of resolution in the opportunities created by the Grand Strategy. Without this the British project comes undone, and it is being undone as we speak. There’s no coming back from this either.

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5 thoughts on “Britain’s Undoing

  1. A very interesting and most enlightening ‘long view’ on the present situation.
    It’s probably worth pointing out that a large swathe of older people in the UK were born in the years immediately following WWII, and so grew up on a constant diet of dramas and documentaries harping on the theme of We Won The War. (Mebbe wi’ a wee bit of help from the Yanks). These attitudes linger at a subconscious level making it hard to accept continental nations in Europe as equals, did they not after all submit to the Nazis/Fascists/Commies???
    How many Brits have anything like the detailed and balanced view of political and economic history demonstrated in this blog post?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. the incorporation of Scotland into England qua Great Britain not only removed a potential colonial competitor, but also ended the possibility of England’s complete encirclement by hostile continental powers in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-11) – a time of real danger for the English state and the future of its apotheosised Protestant succession. Effectively swallowing Scotland, which at the time was in a regnal union with its southern neighbour, closed the backdoor to Louis XIV by isolating the Scots from their Auld Alliance and eventually turning them into the foot soldiers of British expansionism.”

    Exactly.
    I am not sure what was expected.
    Surely removing a rival and securing your property was a sensible move.
    or Should England have wreaked itself and disarmed and allowed itself to be subsumed in France or Spain or Germany?
    And did not ALL European powers jostle for primacy for centuries.

    Like

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