It is over 50 years since American Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain had lost an empire but was yet to find a role. Perhaps to the surprise of some of his fellow Americans, Britain remains a serious player in the world despite all that.
It has the world's fifth-largest economy; it is the sixth-strongest military power; it holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; its head of state is also head of the Commonwealth; its language is as near universal as any tongue has ever been. Yet, because of Britain's decision on 23 June to leave the EU, questions are once more being asked about the country's place in the world, and about what degree of influence it will have on global affairs.
In Britain, during the campaign leading up to the June referendum, the side campaigning to stay in the EU ran what their opponents called 'project fear': a series of claims and statements designed to make the British public feel that their country would be sent back into the dark ages if they voted to leave the EU. So far, this has turned out not to be the case.
A largely irrational fall in the value of Sterling has led to Britain becoming a bargain basement for overseas investors. There has been a rash of bids and takeovers of British companies as part of evidence of a widespread international desire to invest in Britain. The London stock exchange is 5% up on where it was on the day of the EU vote. Economic data from the period immediately after the vote has shown a slowdown, but it is far from clear that this is anything but temporary, or that it was triggered by Brexit: the housing market in Britain, one of the main drivers of the national economy, was slowing down long before the referendum. Britain remains an economic power, and is performing better on many indicators than the EU and America.
On other fronts, however, the country's place in the world and its moral standing are less certain.
The seven-year long inquiry under Sir John Chilcot into the circumstances of Britain's involvement in the second Iraq war showed a desire to support America, and George W Bush, at all costs, irrespective of the case for war against Saddam Hussein, and at the cost of 179 British military and three civilian lives – never mind Iraqi ones. It evoked memories of the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain, France and Israel secretly colluded to try to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt, that time leaving America out of the loop.
Chilcot made it quite clear that Britain slipped from her usual standards of international conduct, though what long term damage it will do to the country's reputation abroad is another matter: probably very little, given the greater and more contemporary issues weighing on the minds of statesmen and the people they govern.
Three other considerations, however, do have a direct bearing on Britain's standing. First, it has just – in a vote on 18 July – reconfirmed itself as a nuclear power by agreeing to renew its Trident submarine fleet. That the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, voted against is neither here nor there. Mr Corbyn, an extreme leftist, leads a shattered party. He is about to face re-election and is likely to win. Paradoxically, that should fire the signal for a split in the party, which will ensure it has little or no possibility of winning the next general election (scheduled for May 2020), and rendering its policies on nuclear weapons, international relations and everything else entirely irrelevant.
Second, Britain finds itself increasingly embarrassed by its wider defence capability. Nobody seems to have told its governing class that a nation that desires to have clout in the world must, in the end, earn that clout by its ability to defend itself and its interests. Recently it was reported that every serious ship in the Royal Navy was in Portsmouth, being repaired. The Royal Air Force can muster only a few small squadrons. And, at 82,000 men and women, the army is at its smallest establishment since before the Second World War. Without an increase in defence spending, Britain is not only vulnerable to threats from powers such as Russia, but is also effectively muted on the world stage.
Third, the threat of Scotland leaving the UK would diminish the country that remained: when Scotland held a referendum on this subject in 2014 (it decided to stay in the UK by 55% to 45%) it was said that the break-up of the UK would, among other things, call the seat on the UN Security Council into question. Although the Scots have said they want another referendum in the light of Brexit, Westminster – which has to approve it – is not interested. Also, polls suggest Scotland would once more vote to stay in the UK.
So for the moment it seems like business as usual for the country. But as always, everything is at the mercy of outside events, whether economic or strategic. Brexit gives Britain the power to influence its own future, and to confirm its place in the world. But that is useless without the country also ensuring it has the means to provide for its own economic and strategic security.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Aaron