Self-absorption is the dominant theme of contemporary British and American politics. In Britain, the focus is exclusively on Brexit and other developments are marginalised or ignored. In the US, political battles revolve around Donald Trump who gets wall-to-wall coverage in the US media –ferociously hostile though much of it is towards him – which previous US presidents could only dream of.
Self-absorption by any country leads it to take a skewed and unrealistically optimistic view of its place in the world. The current populist nationalist wave is a worldwide phenomenon, but Britain is more damaged than the US by the excessive expectations it generates because it is already a far weaker power than the US and more likely to pay a high price for political miscalculations.
British commentators – the BBC is particularly prone to this – tend to adopt a patronising and derisive approach to Trump’s demagoguery about “making America great again”. But he can get away with the most bizarre antics because the US is a political, economic and military superpower regardless of Trump, even if it does not have the primacy it had after the Second World War or, once again, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its status is not changed by Trump’s words and actions, though these are usually more carefully calculated and rooted in the real world than his critics give him credit for.
His crude realism is underestimated by a contemptuous media, dismissive of everything he does. They portray him as an ill-informed crackpot who makes up his policy on the spur of the moment, but this is often much saner than it looks: despite all his jingoism, he has yet to start a war; his belligerent threats towards countries such as North Korea and Iran appear to be designed primarily as negotiating positions in pursuit of a deal; he respects power and will talk to those who possess it, such as Vladimir Putin, enraging other parts of the US government that are trying to isolate Russia as a pariah state.
The pro-Brexit vote in the referendum in 2016 is said by Trump to have given vital extra momentum to the populist-nationalist surge that elected him president later that year. But the danger of looking at everything through an isolationist and nationalist lens is far greater in Britain than it is in the US simply because it leads to the British systematically overplaying their hand. The price of doing so is illustrated by every stumbling step Britain takes out of the EU, contradicting the Brexiteer mantra that Britain has political and economic potential that will make it better off outside the EU.
If the other EU states really were exploiting the UK and getting more out of the relationship than the British, then we could leave tomorrow. But, since the opposite is true, the UK is doomed to be always making concessions that are denounced by the Brexiteers as the outcome of an inexplicable weakness of will on the part of Theresa May and her government.
Boris Johnson is in many respects more dangerous to Britain than Trump is to the US because the former British foreign minister fuels the wishful thinking of many English people about their country, a vision more fantastical than anything peddled by Trump. They enjoy Johnson’s defiant blasts on the patriotic trumpet and ignore his ineffective record as foreign secretary. His numerous critics glibly blame his incompetence for this, but the real reason may be that if any former British foreign minister, be they Palmerston or Grey, were resurrected today and given back their old job, they would find their influence curtailed because the prospect of Brexit has already made Britain a feebler power.
Johnson’s failings are obvious, but they have not prevented him becoming the favoured choice of nearly a third of Conservative Party members to replace Theresa May, whom 45 per cent of the membership want to resign immediately. Given Conservative MPs fear of a general election because Labour under Jeremy Corbyn might win, Johnson is not badly placed to be the next prime minister.
It is not just the sub-Churchillian bombast at work here. Johnson is the sort of Falstaffian figure – a likeable rogue, full of fun and bombast, speaking out when others are hypocritically silent – who always appeals to the English. Of course, Shakespeare’s Henry V was more determined and successful in keeping the fictional Falstaff away from the levers of power than Theresa May is in coping with the real life version.
Johnson has the advantage over Falstaff of combining joviality and popular appeal with Old Etonian self-confidence at a time when opinion polls show English self-confidence to be in short supply. People who fear that their national boat is about to capsize commonly like to hear siren voices saying that no such thing will happen and everything will be all right on the night.
Self-confidence can be self-fulfilling, but only if it does not depart too radically from what is achievable and skirts suspected pitfalls. Trump gets away with projecting relentless self-confidence about America’s future because, contrary to his own mendacious claims, Obama left the US in a strong position. Self-assurance detached from reality carries greater risks in Britain, as witnessed with the performance of smoothly confident David Cameron who led the nation over the cliff edge in Libya, the Brexit referendum and self-destructive austerity.
Of course, Eton did not invent the idea of Britain pretending to be stronger than it really is. The Foreign Office used to trot out the cliché that whatever policy it was advocating at the time would enable Britain “to punch above its weight”, though a moment’s reflection tells one that anybody who makes a habit of this is going to end up flat on the canvas.
During the parliamentary debates about British participation in bombing Isis in Syria, I was struck by how many MPs failed to take on board the British incapacity to do anything militarily effective. The necessary planes, missiles and intelligence on the ground did not exist. But this did not prevent Hillary Benn making a much-applauded speech supporting British intervention in Syria and comparing it with “the socialists, trade unionists and others who joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini.” Significantly, neither Benn nor the supportive MPs showed much interest in the negligible number of missions that the RAF was subsequently able to carry out against Isis in Syria.
The economic effects of Brexit are probably survivable, but a greater danger is the degree of division that leaving the EU and the emergence of Falstaffian figures such as Johnson, ambitious to rule, will inflict on the country.
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