“Britain .. a great power, temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties”
This is how Britain was described just after the second world war. A newly published book, Britain Alone, traces the story from then until Brexit.
A powerful account of modern British history
Philip Stephens is the chief political commentator of the Financial Times. From this vantage point he has been able to observe and experience Britain’s exit from the European Union, the biggest event in British post-war politics. His book is a powerful account of modern British history. He cleverly identifies numerous strands in the story which interact with each other. The main ones are the economic weakness of Britain after the war, the issue of nuclear weapons, the need to strengthen the British economy and the various politicians who tried to grapple with these problems.
The retreat from Empire
This book takes the reader back to 1945, when Britain could rightly be regarded as a Great Power, having played a heroic and indispensable role in many theatres in contributing to the Allied victory.
Stephens highlights two key statements. The first was in the late 1940s, when Sir Henry Tizard, chief scientific adviser to both the Churchill and Attlee Governments, said in an official Whitehall minute, “We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.”
The second statement was made in December 1962 by Dean Acheson, the former American Secretary of State. He said, “Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Both statements, particularly the latter, caused great controversy in Britain, because they spoke of a new reality, which was not as widely or clearly understood in Britain as it should have been. This new reality was the economic impoverishment of Britain after our financing of two world wars and the retreat from Empire in the 1950s and 1960s.
The nuclear deterrent
Stephens explains the nuclear issue. Britain had achieved great advances in nuclear research during the interwar years, which was assisted by refugees in the 1930s from Germany. When the USA entered the war in 1942, much of the accumulated nuclear knowledge and scientists were transferred to North America to supplement American research. But soon after Japan’s defeat America stopped nuclear cooperation with Britain.
This encouraged Ernest Bevin, the patriotic British Foreign Secretary and Clement Attlee, to create a British nuclear weapon and later governments to develop a British ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. However it always depended on American technical support. This became clear in 1962, when Harold Macmillan negotiated at Nassau with President Kennedy the supply of the Polaris system.
This ensured that Britain would have a nuclear deterrent but the delivery system would depend on America. This deal occurred during a crucial stage of our negotiations to enter the European Economic Community and gave de Gaulle public justification to exclude us from the EEC. Interestingly Stephens discloses that the French deterrent is entirely independent of America.
Rejected opportunities to play leading role in developing European unity
In the 1950s, having won the war (rather forgetting the roles played by our Allies) the Governments of Attlee, Churchill and Eden considered Britain deserved exceptional treatment and could rely on the markets of the Empire for future opportunities.
We misunderstood the European wish to create supranational bodies so as to help cure the continent of the evils of extreme nationalism. From the beginning, British politicians failed to understand the strong political underpinnings of closer collaboration.
However, by 1961 Macmillan decided we needed the stimulus of the much larger free-trade market offered by the EEC, but because we had rejected the chance of participation at the beginning we had to accept what the earlier participants had established. This feature in the story reappeared often in subsequent decades.
Confrontational or consensual politics?
Stephens describes clearly the British Prime Ministers who have handled this difficult issue over the past 70 years. Edward Heath was the only one who pursued Britain’s commitment to the European project almost unconditionally, but he was ousted following the miners’ strikes in the early 1970s.
Margaret Thatcher was an enthusiastic supporter of our membership. She played a major role in the development of the Single Market and the expansion of the EU to include the former Communist countries but later she mistrusted the aims of the EU. Tony Blair was similarly enthused but his fatal commitment to George W Bush’s Iraq war in 2003 cost him support in both Britain and the EU.
All Prime Ministers suffered from the British political habit of confrontational politics, rather than the European tradition of more consensual politics. They all also found it hard to reconcile the waning power of Britain with its past glories.
Evaluation of the 2016 referendum: is Britain still a great power?
My only criticism of Stephens’ masterly telling of this complicated story is his evaluation of the referendum in 2016. He seems to be unimpressed that at no time has a majority of the British electorate voted to leave the EU and certainly not the deal of December 2020.
Those who voted to leave represented only 37.5% of the electorate. David Cameron should have ensured that implementing something as radical as leaving the EU should be supported by a clear majority or supermajority of the electorate. Furthermore, the conduct of the Referendum was so mendacious as to make it fraudulent. Parliament failed to ensure a level playing field on such an important issue.
Stephens’ account of this saga is clear and compelling. It covers many different complicated strands with clarity and erudition. It deserves to be widely read and it is to be hoped that a paperback version will soon be made available so more people will read it.