Just like the Suez crisis, Brexit humiliation is a stark reminder of Britain’s waning global influence

If the UK has any sense now, just like after Suez, we would retreat and simply accept our diminished status in the world, with as much dignity as we can muster, and hope time heals the wounds

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 16 January 2019 14:40 GMT
Michel Barnier reacts to parliament's rejection of Theresa May's Brexit deal: 'Now it's time for the UK to tell us the next steps'

Rarely, a moment arrives in a nation’s history when reality hits, and it realises that it is not the power it was, not the force it fancies itself to be, and that it cannot get what it wants because other, stronger nations, won’t allow it to.

It is becoming more obvious that Brexit is just such a moment for the UK. As Theresa May asks us to consider what the historians will say, it is a nice moment to suggest that they shouldn’t heap the blame on her. She made her mistakes, heaven knows, but the fundamental problem for her is that the EU is, roughly, ten times bigger than the UK. In population, in economic heft, in terms of the scale it can bring to its negotiations with other economic superpowers such as the US, China, India and Japan.

The British were not able to get the Brexit they’d like – to have their cake and eat it – because the EU could say no to that proposition, and they did. We had few cards to play – the budget contributions, keeping EU citizens as “hostages” (counterproductive anyway), their loss of the City as a pool of capital, and impeding the “import” of everything from French cheese to Polish plumbers. In the end, they had far more.

So they told us where to get off: what did we expect. It has happened before. Politicians occasionally – not enough – mention “Suez” as a moment of similar national crisis and humiliation. The parallels are close. Back in 1956 the British government believed that it could still play a global role, as a “great power”. We’d won the war, after all. We disliked the Egyptians nationalising the Suez Canal, through which all of our oil and much other trade used to flow, to and from what is nowadays termed “global Britain”. We joined with the French, a similarly post-imperial medium sized European power and the Israelis to collude in an invasion of Egypt. The idea, entirely pre-planned (in a secret treaty, the Sevres accord), was the Israelis would invade Sinai, and then the British and French would invade, secure the canal for international security and to break up the fight.

All went well – it was a military success – until the Americans found out about it. They were furious, because it interfered with their Cold War policies, and told the British to pack it in and get out. If we didn’t, they told the government, they would crush the pound, and thus inflict huge economic damage on the UK's economy and banking system. The British thus came face-to-face with the limits of their power. They couldn’t do what they want. So we and the French retreated. Humiliation. Bitter recriminations. Reputations trashed. Fall of the prime minister.

The contrasting sequels to that are instructive. The British decided to rebuild their “special” relationship with America and become their closest and most trusted ally, co-operating on security and nuclear weapons. The French, by contrast, were conformed in their belief that they should look to Europe for their national and international ambitions. Suez was October 1956; the Treaty of Rome was March 1957.

Looking across the Atlantic, the US secretary of state, John Forster Dulles, told Congress that the Suez debacle “partly created, partly disclosed the vulnerability of the British economic financial position”. His boss, President Eisenhower said this to an aide; “I’ve just seen a great power make such a complete mess and botch of things…of course there’s nobody in a war I'd rather have fighting alongside me than the British. But – this thing! My God!”

And so we find the EU now in the same position the Americans were in the 1950s; revealing uncomfortable economic realities to us. Internally, in Britain, the events created and opened up deep passions and divisions, just as they do today.

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The EU, like the US then, is too big to ignore, too rich to dictate to, and too powerful to say “no” to. The economic realities behind diplomacy drive events far more than we’d like to think in our personality-obsessed media.

We rely on the EU for half of our foreign trade, roughly a fifth of our national income. The EU relies for about 10 per cent of its exports on the UK, and less in terms of its overall national income. It varies – it is rather larger for the Netherlands than Bulgaria, for German car makers than for Romanian retailers, but the broad economic imbalance is there. For BMW, for example, the integrity of the vast single market is more important than the money it makes in Britain; it is a global concern with plants from Spartanburg, South Carolina to Shenyang, China. The UK is useful, lucrative as a market and has been an excellent place to build Minis and BMW engines; but it is not as important to the Group as we might wish to imagine.

Think, if you will, about the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 that preceded the UK's vote on the EU. That, too, was dominated by economic, material issues, though with traditional patriotism, or nationalism, also in the mix. The Scots wanted, from the English in effect, to be able to say in the (former) UK single market; to keep the pound sterling; and to have various other benefits that they currently enjoyed, but without making many other concessions. The births government (EH?) loftily said, basically, that they could take a hike along the high road. The British Treasury had no special wish to favour Scotland, and the Bank of England would not run monetary policy to suit the Scottish economy. The Scots, in effect, would be granted independence if they voted for it; but they would have to accept English terms. Mercifully the Scottish people were canny enough to see the realities facing them. The disparity in power was clear – the remaining UK (England, Wales, Northern Ireland) was about ten times larger than Scotland in national income and population just like the UK vs the EU. It had nothing to do with the relative skills of, say, Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond. It was a matter of weight of money.

If the UK has any sense now, just like after Suez, we would retreat and simply accept our diminished status in the world, with as much dignity as we can muster, and hope time heals the wounds. We should instead concentrate on building an economy that would give us more clout in the counsels of the EU. After all, this is actually what the Germans have managed to do, as paymaster for the entire system. Without Germany there would be no EU. Without Britain they could get along pretty well anyhow. Britain without the EU? We daren’t.

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