An excellent new column in the FT takes on one of Britain’s biggest flaws: its widespread tendency to underestimate its own relevance. Although Britain is no longer the globe-dominating power it once was, it remains one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, a fact that too many Britons tend to forget:
If anything, the UK suffers from delusions of weakness. Its citizens habitually refer to their “small island”, which, at least by population size, ranks in the top decile of nations. You would not know from its parochial political culture that the UK has nuclear weapons, a permanent place on the UN Security Council, the ultimate global city as its capital and, according to an annual survey by Monocle magazine, more “soft power” than any other nation.
This is particularly true of the British relationship with the EU, where the UK commands considerably more influence than most of its citizens imagine:
In Germany and especially in France, which favoured a smaller and less liberal EU, there is bafflement that British euroscepticism has soared during an era where Europe has been moulded by the UK as much as by any other country. It negotiated an opt-out from the euro and saw its language become the EU’s dominant tongue. Its diplomats are, along with the French, regarded as the most effective in Brussels. Its determination to complete the single market has supporters in northern Europe, the accession countries and the European Commission itself.
The ultimate mark of the UK’s clout is that it won all these victories without ever giving the EU its full attention. For France and Germany, asserting their interests in the EU accounts for the bulk of their foreign policy. The UK—even under Tony Blair, perhaps its most europhile prime minister—has been only spasmodically attentive. . . . The UK is influential almost despite itself—a measure of its size, wealth and liberal appeal to countries put off by the French vision of Europe.
This is an extremely important point. The UK is a rising power, not a falling one—even if many Brits are among the last to believe it. Few countries worldwide, and none on the Continent, are as well placed to play a leading role in the 21st century. The UK’s biggest dangers stem from its failure to appreciate the sources of its strength, which is largely a result of the way the Brits themselves still feel oppressed by the shadow of the departed Empire. They compare themselves to their Victorian and Edwardian forbears, or to Winston Churchill, and can’t help but feel dingy, powerless, and small in comparison.
By more reasonable standards, the UK today has a lot of assets, and a more active and optimistic diplomacy, especially in Europe, would help make up for what it lacks. Some quiet, off-the-record work could help Labour and Conservative thinkers and politicians arrive at some common ground for a long-term national policy on the EU—including the development of stronger alliances with countries like Poland, the Dutch, and the Scandinavians. A smart national consensus on European policy would allow Britain to do more to think and plan for the long term. A good strategy and patience could go a long way toward pushing Europe in a direction much more amenable to the British people.