There comes a time in the life of every lonely and bemused former empire when the hammy play-acting at great power status must stop, and stark reality be faced. For Britain, cheeks burning crimson at the latest in an unending sequence of foreign policy humiliations, such a moment has arrived.
It isn't the first since the post-Second World War settlement, and sad to say it probably won't be the last. However often Britain humiliates herself, from Suez, via Iraq, to David Cameron moonlighting as the arms dealers' tour guide – leaders either refuse to learn the lesson, or lack the courage to act on it. That lesson is this. Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Kashmiri border between disastrously partitioned India and Pakistan... locate a centre of chaos, misery or maximum danger on a globe, and the hand of idiot Britain will be visible, and generally twice: first sowing the historic seeds for the trouble, and then interfering when they bloom to make matters worse.
Who on earth, you can hear the rest of the planet screeching, do we think we are? Or rather, who does David Cameron think he is to be issuing imperious edicts to Gaddafi? It isn't the substance that offends. You needn't have a coherent foreign policy to conclude that the Colonel really should be moving on. Which is a stroke of luck because, unless you count alternating between berating one brutal tyrant one minute and flogging the instruments of tyranny to another the next, Mr Cameron doesn't have a foreign policy at all. What enrages is his delusional arrogance in assuming that anyone beyond these shores could care less what Britain has to say about anything.
A radical self-reappraisal of this country's place in the world has been needed for half a century, and now more urgently than ever. The Army's reputation is at its nadir after being routed in Basra and Sangin and replaced by jeering Americans, because a Labour government preferred imperial posturing to adequately staffing and equipping them. The Navy, satirically humbled in 2007 when those 15 sailors pliantly surrendered to the Iranians, will soon be operating aircraft carriers devoid of aircraft. The horrendous diplomatic fall-out from the colonial adventure in Iraq will linger for generations.
What more concrete evidence does anyone need that British power, hard and soft, is as risible as the lack of any geopolitical strategic intent? Neither convincingly in Europe nor out of it, we remain hitched to the United States as a client kingdom as the era of American supremacy hurriedly draws to its close. We suck up to the gerontocracy of Beijing, closing our eyes to its filthy human rights abuses, as we did to Libya's, Egypt's and once to Iraq's, because China is doing what no nation has done before in human history by recovering from the loss of one mighty empire to build another.
We, meanwhile, cling desperately to the ghostly remnants of the one we lost. We do so in three specific ways, and until these are abandoned Britain will not stumble through this fog, and establish herself as what she ought to be: a benign, third-tier power committed to the values – paramount belief in human liberty and correspondingly implacable hatred of tyranny – to which our politicians pay more histrionic verbal tribute the more their actions militate against them.
First to go must be the permanent seat on the UN Security Council. An anachronism for decades, it feels an insanely inappropriate piece of symbolism in a brave new world order that has such emergent giants as India and Brazil in it. Eight years ago, a British PM joined a US president in cockily disdaining the UN's will over Iraq, and it was a sign of its weakness that it didn't respond to that disgrace by yanking the seat from under Britain's arse. The UN remains all that there is, however, and voluntarily yielding the Security Council seat – preferably with a request that it be elided with France's and handed to the European Union, with the freed-up fifth seat going to India – is an essential first step on the road to redemption.
The second, needless to say, is relinquishing the independent nuclear deterrent that is neither independent nor any kind of deterrent. The arguments are too stale to be worth restating. We all know that whatever minimal relevance Trident once had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, and that it is retained solely as a cheap short cut, for all the billions wasted, to the familiar affectation of Great Power status. It is no coincidence that the missiles are shaped after the phallus. The system is no more than a geopolitical codpiece, albeit one that cannot disguise the fact that, behind the nuclear merkin, the British penis is flaccid, the balls shrunken and wizened.
The third step is ridding ourselves of this vile arms industry, which contributes far more negligibly to employment and tax revenue than we are encouraged to believe. The true value of this trade to governments is – what else? – its makeshift use as a figleaf to hide the limpness of British power and permit the international willy-waving to continue.
If the vision of Cameron following the form book with his one-man double act – good cop Dave lacerating Gaddafi, bad cop Dave selling arms to the neighbours – is nauseating, there it is not alone. Many of us who cannot identify the problem with a country behaving according to its professed ideals are sick beyond endurance of being glibly dismissed as infantile idealists by the wiseacres of Westminster, Whitehall and what we used to call Fleet Street. In seeking shelter from the facts of an irrelevant present and an even more irrelevant future in their fanciful dreams of the distant past, it is they who are the childish fantasists.
For a while after Suez, with Harold Wilson defying intense pressure from LBJ to send combat troops to Vietnam, Britain seemed ready to outgrow the imperial pacifier and move on. Then the last historically important Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to be Churchill, resurrected it in the Falklands. Blair, who wanted to be Thatcher, sustained it, and now Cameron, who wants to be Blair, seems determined to do the same. But the next great British Prime Minister, if there is to be another, will be the one who ends it once and for all. Don't hold your breath.