Abroad, we're still `Olde Englande'

`Tony Blair's Guildhall speech will go down as Cool Britannia Mark II, stripped of crass claims of fashion, music and design'
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The Independent Culture
PRAISE BE to Tony Blair. Where Churchill, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Thatcher failed, he has succeeded. Nostalgia has been banished and the Curse of Acheson has been exorcised. Half a century of post-imperial drift is over, the Prime Minister declared in his Guildhall speech on Monday night, and Britain had found a role: that of "pivotal power". Not the superpower it was in 1900, of course, but up there at the very top of the second division, and endowed with "unique" potential strengths on the eve of the 21st century.

Now this is not only distinctly reassuring, but perfectly plausible. Unarguably, Britain is in good shape. Public transport and the national sports teams may be lousy, but the economy prospers, the currency is robust, and the Government gives every impression of knowing what it's about. How different from the Britain depicted by Harry Truman's former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, back in 1962, which famously had "lost an empire but not yet found a role". If any country can now be said to be the "Sick Man of Europe" it is no longer ourselves but Germany, for most of the last 50 years the yardstick by which an underperforming, anachronistic Britain was told to measure itself.

According to the Prime Minister, we are now respected and admired because of the prowess of our Army, the solidity of our democracy, our strong economy, our entrepreneurial flair, our collective creative genius, and, last but not least, our good fortune in being the motherland of the English language.

The Guildhall speech will go down as Cool Britannia Mark II - stripped of the first version's crass claims on behalf of British fashion, music and design, hardly shared beyond our shores, and based more on political, military and economic competence. Once again, however, Britain is depicted as a thoroughly modern nation, striving and thriving, simultaneously belonging to Europe and the North Atlantic community. But let us not get carried away.

New Labour's vision of the promised land is one thing. The world's view of ourselves is quite another. The report issued yesterday by the British Council, "Through Other Eyes", is arguably the most comprehensive study of how foreigners regard this country. Between 200 and 400 young professionals were interviewed from 13 countries, among them France, India, Russia, China and Brazil.

The interviewees were young, between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties, mostly English-speaking and with postgraduate degrees. They are, in short, the kind of people likely to be in positions of real influence within a decade or so - the kind of people whose views of Britain may well directly matter to us, across the negotiating table or in the boardrooms a decade or so down the line.

In the eyes of these particular others, it's not shiny new Britain, but dear old Britain. Now, the Blairite vision is not entirely absent. Our biggest national strength is deemed to be the economy. We are also deeply admired for our educational and political systems - whatever we may think of them. But our traditions and imperial past are listed among both the country's prime assets and its prime weaknesses (closely followed in the latter category by such related afflictions as complacency, snobbishness and the Royal Family).

So the foreigners who might best be expected to know, most strongly identify this country by its links to the past. Love them or loathe them, ritual and ceremony, Ascot and top hats at Eton, are our main distinguishing characteristics. Asked whether Britain is modern or traditional, these foreigners emphatically reply the latter. This may not be bad news for the tourist industry (after all, who wants to monitor the changing Docklands skyline, when you've got the Changing of the Guard or Royal Ascot?), but it's a far cry from the Blairist orthodoxy of the lean, mean island kingdom, not only punching above its weight in world affairs, but also seen by all to be so doing.

How neatly the theory works, on those imaginary flowcharts of global power. There stands Britain, no longer at the centre of all the circles, but where they intersect and overlap. The European Union, Nato, the World Trade Organisation, the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth, the G-8 and so on: we and we alone are members of all of them. Hence our unique range of contacts, our ability to dispense a wisdom and influence acquired from long experience.

But I must stop myself. Aren't we getting close to Macmillan's musings, long before Dean Acheson made his famous observation, about Britain's becoming an Athens to America's Rome? And, to be fair, that was not Tony Blair's suggestion at Guildhall. His Britain will not be prickly and isolationist, but internationalist, deeply involved in Europe and wishing the common currency nothing but good.

And maybe he's right; maybe as globalisation advances, Britain's eternal dilemma - America or Europe - is a false choice. "My vision for Britain is as a bridge between the EU and the USA," he says, and maybe we can have it both ways; both fully paid-up member of Europe, yet simultaneously America's special friend and point of contact in Europe.

And, after all, as a wise man once said, politics is the daughter of history, and history is the daughter of geography. Why should Europe's off-shore island, which has unbreakable ties of language and culture with the other side of the Atlantic, not thrive as a link between the two?

There are, however, two problems with bridges: what goes across them, and whether they are needed in the first place. When he argues for European involvement, Mr Blair is right when he claims that Britain's influence in Washington grows with its influence in Europe. But the reverse is not true. The closer the Blair Government embraces American ideas, from macroeconomics, to trade policy and welfare reform, the more it is regarded as a Trojan horse for Washington. In the next few days defence policy will provide a further test. Is Britain working for a genuine European defence identity or merely to tie EU security policy to Nato, ie the Americans ?

And who needs bridges anyway? France, Italy and Germany are grown-up countries, perfectly capable of forging their own relations with Washington, without the British as mediators and interpreters, even fifth columnists for the US. So the bridge may not be the answer. In which case the foreigners will be right. Things may be going well right now, but the Curse of Acheson still holds. We cannot shake off the past. On Monday night Mr Blair, however cleverly, did no more than restate the dilemma.