Philip Stephens’ new book is a master class in dissecting the postwar decline of the United Kingdom as a great power.
by Philip Stephens (Faber & Faber, 480 pp., $29.95)
Let’s say that in 2016, the year of Brexit, the most gifted Oxbridge don who ever lived—maybe Isaiah Berlin, from beyond the grave—gave one of the university’s best-ever students of politics the following final exam question: Identify the greatest policy challenges facing the United Kingdom at the end of the Second World War and assess how Her Majesty’s Government has managed them since. If all the promise I am trying to imply came fully to fruition as the work of a mature author at the peak of his powers, the result would be Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit by Philip Stephens.
Read the don’s question again. Simple, isn’t it? Perhaps an answer is already taking shape in the mind: rebuilding the economy after wartime privation; managing the remains of the empire; reconstructing relations with continental Europe; navigating relations with the leading postwar power, the United States. But that’s the easy part, a parlor game for the glib current events set. To demonstrate why these were the key questions is more difficult: It requires detailed knowledge of British and European history, economic history, 20th-century ideology and the communist threat, anti- and post-colonial movements across the globe, and the often maddening habits and prejudices of the superpower across the pond. It requires a clear-eyed assessment of opportunities and dangers and fair standards of judgment on seizing or missing the former and averting or succumbing to the latter—not just with the advantage of historical hindsight but from the perspective of those facing such inflection points in real time.
This enterprise, in turn, requires keen insight into the personalities, convictions (whether whole- or half-hearted), and ambitions of the politicians and policymakers taking or avoiding the key decisions of the day, as well as the institutional culture, from Whitehall to Westminster, in which they operate. Let us not forget as well the constraints of operating in a political system based in principle on the presence of a “loyal opposition”—and by “loyal” one refers to an opposition seeking to turn its most recent defeat into its next victory by inflicting as much political damage as it can on the previous winners.
In all these respects, the Financial Times’ chief political commentator Philip Stephens meets and exceeds the requirements of any ambition to give a definitive account of British foreign relations since World War II. Britain Alone delivers the goods in four hundred or so crisply written pages. Stephens eschews flashiness and trendy virtue-signaling in favor of clarity and concision.
In a certain sense, his story begins, as advertised, in 1956, with the disastrous joint British-French-Israeli attempt to retake control of the Suez Canal from Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the ruler of Egypt and the leading voice of pan-Arab nationalism. This effort collapsed when the Eisenhower Administration, to the surprise of the United Kingdom, staunchly opposed the military intervention by its World War II allies—and did so in terms that were unabashedly (and shamelessly) anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden invested in the view that “national prestige counted for as much as trade and oil,” and staked his tenure on a view of imperial continuity that proved impossible to sustain. The view within the UK government, as Stephens quotes official sources, was that “[f]ailure to hold the Suez Canal would inevitably lead to the loss one by one of all our interests and assets in the Middle East.” Instead, “Eden’s decision … would break the prime minister and leave Britain lost in a world over which it no longer ruled.”
Even this early in Stephens’ chronicle, we see his bigger picture starting to emerge. Eden was in many ways a formidable and accomplished figure, his stature resting in part on the clarity of his denunciation of Neville Chamberlain’s effort to appease Hitler in Munich in 1938. Years later, the internal view of Britain as one of the allied victors over Nazi Germany in World War II obscured the extent to which the possibility of sustaining “all our interests and assets”—the remnants of empire—had closed. Whitehall and No. 10 Downing propounded a kind of domino theory, in which both the loss of the canal seemed preventable—in a way it was not—and its recapture the critical first step in averting an outcome that could not, in fact, be averted. During the crisis, moreover, the Eisenhower Administration was entirely unsentimental in exploiting American leverage over Britain: The United Kingdom would stand down or face the collapse of the pound (the danger of which was a perennial concern throughout the era of fixed exchange rates, empire having long since ceased being profitable). In turn, the British capitulation reinforced France’s impression that the United Kingdom had become a tool of American influence.
Indeed, for many in London beginning then and ever since, preserving the “special relationship” with the American superpower often beguiled as a way for Britain to enhance its global position. In its earliest configuration, as Stephens tells the story, the British ambition was to play the Greeks to the American Romans—that is, to be the more worldly and learned counsel to uncultivated but undeniable power. In practical terms, for British prime ministers this relationship entailed striking a “delicate balance between solidarity and submission.” Some prime ministers were better at it than others; Stephens’ American readers will benefit from his assessment of a familiar question from a British point of view.
Harold Macmillan, as he followed Eden into No. 10, fixed on the United States as key to Britain’s role in the world. After the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, Macmillan was especially keen to persuade the rattled Americans that Britain was essential to the U.S. project of Cold War containment. But the British pursuit of close Anglo-American cooperation didn’t always mean automatic deference to active collaboration with a Washington-dictated agenda. Stephens credits Harold Wilson’s staunch refusal to provide even a token British troop deployment to Vietnam, notwithstanding Lyndon Johnson’s badgering, as perhaps Britain’s finest performance in the course of the “special relationship.” In contrast, Tony Blair’s adhesion to George W. Bush on Iraq was substantively the worst, though Stephens reserves special disdain for Theresa May’s distasteful rush to maintain UK tradition by becoming the first chief of government to visit Donald Trump in the White House.
As to what benefit Britain has gained from the “special relationship,” the calculation is not easy to make. Part of the reason is that much of the benefit is secret, particularly the activities of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship among the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Britain also obtained its “independent” nuclear deterrent capability from Washington in a turnkey package deal that many top figures in the UK government saw as essential to the preservation of Britain’s great-power status.
Yet Stephens rightly questions how independent Britain’s nuclear deterrent actually is, tied as it has been to NATO processes; the nub of the matter is whether the United Kingdom could, as France can with its nuclear capability, launch without American permission. Clearly, no one wants to find out the answer. But asking the question raises a still more basic issue, namely, the real value of an “independent” capability. Does France’s genuine capability make Paris more influential than London with its questionable one? Moreover, neither Germany nor Japan has nuclear weapons, though either independently could get them. Yet the absence does not self-evidently diminish the international stature or security of either. Though Stephens quotes policymakers describing the stakes of the British nuclear deterrent as sky-high, the pursuit of the capacity seems, in his telling, like a rhetorically overheated exercise in trying to shore up British global influence that has already fallen away.
“Once started,” Stephens writes, “decolonization had an irresistible logic.” In what he calls the “last imperial delusions,” many British politicians harbored the hope that the new Commonwealth of states on the former territory of the empire would enhance Britain’s global influence. Stephens witheringly describes this misplaced hope as one that was embraced without benefit of consultation with the former colonies themselves. “Why would they mark self-determination,” he asks, “by submitting to direction from London?” In 1962 Dean Acheson, the American secretary of state, offered a blunt assessment to which Stephens refers several times: Britain, having lost an empire, had yet to find a role. In a book written from a distinctly British point of view, the remark comes off not only as perceptive but very American in its brutality.
Stephens thinks that a better role for Britain was available for the taking and that the failure to recognize and seize this opportunity in the aftermath of World War II was a mistake of great measure. The road not taken was to reconceive Britain as a leading—likely the leading—postwar European power.
We have already seen why a succession of British prime ministers and Whitehall estimables might have averted their gazes from such a reorientation. Churchill, after all, sat at the victors’ table with Stalin and Roosevelt. The Continent was a war-ravaged wreck. The empire, though in decline, still needed attention and management. And Britain, having peacefully transferred its centuries-old global security responsibilities to the United States, the ascendant power of the 20th century—a story Kori Schake tells in Safe Passage (2017)—had a plausible claim to “senior counselor” status in relation to the Americans, even though Washington had no intention of offering London such a job. Britain’s own economic outlook, of course, was hardly brimming with confidence.
Still, Stephens contends—rightly, in my opinion—that if Britain had sought a major role in European reconstruction, it would have had one. The Americans, leaning hard into the Cold War, would have meddled where they wished; but there would have been no reason for the United States not to delegate to the United Kingdom such responsibility as London was willing to take on. Instead, Britain persisted in its standoffish posture toward Continental affairs, including the vision of European integration advocated by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, and others. Acheson titled his memoir Present at the Creation (1970), referring to the postwar order whose Western side the United States would lead. The British position on Europe might be described as “absent from the beginning,” ceding to Gaullist France and Adenauer’s Bonn Republic in Germany the establishment of the Continent’s ur-institution, the European Coal and Steel Community. Some British prime ministers had a greater European orientation than others, but Britain’s fitful engagement, as integration grew stronger and deeper, never contemplated doing the work of leadership of Europe.
Stephens was appalled by the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. He is right to note that the decades-long lack of enthusiasm among a succession of UK leaders for the project of European integration was a major contributor to the narrow majority in favor of leaving the EU. The “remain” side hammered away at the perils of Brexit—“sometimes overblown,” Stephens rightly concedes, though the fabulism by the “leave” side was breathtaking. Missing from the remain side, however, was a positive case for Britain’s leadership in Europe—because Britain really wasn’t a leader in Europe, nor had two generations of its own leaders made the case that it should be.
Britain Alone, as a work of political and diplomatic history, is mostly a story of failure and missed opportunity, as politics and diplomacy mostly are. There is, accordingly, something missing—and that is an adequate capture of the once and, I think, future dynamism of Britain, especially in economic and cultural terms. It’s hard to describe exactly, for example, the import of the United Kingdom’s being home to the greatest league of the world’s most popular sport; but it’s not zero. Britain remains a place to which people want to go, not from which they want to flee. That part of the UK story is missing from Britain Alone.
Nevertheless, Philip Stephens has written a masterful book. It is also a potential model for companion volumes seeking to answer the don’s piercing exam question from the perspectives of France, Germany, other European countries, Japan, the United States, and more. Faber & Faber should commission them at once.
Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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