Theresa May is in denial about Britain’s declining power over Brexit in the age of Trump

Brexit is the most important single development in British foreign policy since declaring war on Germany in 1939. It is also arguably the worst unforced error ever in British history

Patrick Cockburn
Friday 02 June 2017 16:32
Nurse May is selling rose-tinted fantasies about an isolated post-Brexit Britain in the age of Trumpism
Nurse May is selling rose-tinted fantasies about an isolated post-Brexit Britain in the age of Trumpism

The general election is showing the extent to which Britain has diminished in power over the last year. “L’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose – England is not much anymore,” said President de Gaulle in 1963 as he vetoed Britain’s bid to join the EEC.

He was premature because of Britain’s subsequent EU membership and its longstanding transatlantic alliance with the US. The first advantage was thrown away by the vote for Brexit last year and the election of President Trump means that the US is no longer a reliable ally for Britain or for anybody else. Any doubts about this latter development should have evaporated on Thursday when Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

Brexit is the most important single development in British foreign policy since declaring war on Germany in 1939. It is also arguably the worst unforced error ever in British history, so debate on its precise nature should naturally be the main topic of the election. Every aspect of life in the country – trade, industry, finance, welfare, health, education, defence, immigration – will be affected or transformed by it. But Theresa May’s claim to be prime minister for the next five years is based on the childish schoolyard virtues of being tough and combative, though this is contradicted by her swift retreats in the face of opposition on issues like national insurance and care for the elderly.

The attractiveness of May to the electorate is in keeping with a traditional English liking for authoritarian female rulers as exemplified by Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher and Judy Dench as ‘M’ in the James Bond movies. In keeping with this archetype, she was reassuring voters this week that “the promise of Brexit is great … It is not a process, but an opportunity, alive with possibilities [to] build a greater Britain.”

General Election round-up: June 1

No, it isn’t. Quite the opposite. The reason the Government is keeping its cards in the Brexit negotiations so close to its chest is that it knows that it holds no aces, few court cards and plenty of low scoring clubs and diamonds. It is a dud losing hand that is not going “to make sense of Brexit”, whoever is playing it. Britain is voluntarily leaving the EU club on the absurd assumption that the remaining 27 members will give it sweetheart terms under which ex-members suffer no penalties and are just as well off as those who stayed put. This won’t happen.

Conservative election strategy is to hold a presidential-type campaign in which the electorate is offered a choice between May and Jeremy Corbyn and inevitably chose the former. This approach is summed up in Hilaire Belloc’s advice to children on how to stay safe, citing the example of Jim who got eaten by a lion at the zoo: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

This strategy has been coming unstuck in recent days as Nurse May wobbles and weaves. Indeed, when it comes to playing a weak political hand without buckling, as will be necessary during the Brexit negotiations, all the evidence is that Corbyn is much tougher and more resilient under pressure than the Prime Minister. Going by his performance over the last two years, this mild-looking man should be able to deal with anything the EU leaders could throw at him since he has stood up without turning a hair to attacks of unrelenting venom from the British media as well as many of his own MPs. May revels in an embarrassing way in once having been called “a bloody difficult woman”, but nobody ever called Corbyn “a bloody difficult man” because it would be too obvious to be worth saying.

Sadly, toughness and resilience will not be enough because Brexit is only one reason why Britain is weaker than a year ago. Since 1940 the country has been sustained by its position as the closest ally of the US. For decades, it was able to piggy-back on American power, exerting influence beyond its own political and economic strength. But this advantage is disappearing because Trump is all about American nationalism, as he made clear in his speech withdrawing from the Paris accord.

The political consequences of this are more important than the climatic. Britain is an important building-block in the architecture of US global authority, but the Trump administration sees this role as a burden and a drain on Americans, so its need for close relations with the UK is reduced. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, Britain would have had less cards to play in Washington than when it was a leading member of the EU. A prominent feature of Trump’s politics is overwhelming respect for power – witness his happy relations with kings and dictators – and power is what Britain no longer has.

Brexit and the election of a more isolationist US president are not the only signs of Britain’s receding ability to debate and grapple successfully with its problems. The election is meant to be about Brexit, but the options here can only be discussed in the most infantile and jingoistic terms. Much of the same is true of the Manchester bombing on 22 May, with the Government pretending to be shocked and horrified when anybody suggests that the ability of British-Libyan Salman Abedi to carry out this atrocity might be connected to the British foreign policy of regime change in Libya in 2011, though it was this that reduced the country to chaos and allowed Isis to take root.

The Government’s shabby little cover story is that anybody who criticises its well-established willingness to allow Salafi-jihadi Libyans living in Britain to go to Libya to fight against Muammar Gaddafi is somehow providing a moral alibi for the bomber. May, Boris Johnson and the others pretend that the case against them is that British military intervention in Iraq, Syria and Libya motivated Isis killers like Abedi, but the real accusation is that they empowered people like him by giving Isis and al-Qaeda territory from which to operate. It would be particularly interesting to find out what role May played as Home Secretary in lifting control orders and returning passports to Libyan jihadis six years ago. Has she spoken about this?

By helping overthrow Gaddafi, and aiding the Salafi-jihadis who were the cutting edge of the Nato-backed armed opposition to him, Britain allowed the creation of sanctuaries where Abedi and his like can learn their bomb making skills. Focus on how Libyan and other jihadis were radicalised in the UK is a convenient diversion for the Government that enables it to evade responsibility for its actions in opening up Iraq, Libya, and Syria to them.

Government rhetoric about stopping radicalisation of Muslims is fundamentally dishonest and ineffective because it shies away from pointing the finger at the intolerant fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam which has become so influential in Sunni states and communities thanks to funding from Saudi Arabia. Short of allies in Europe and the US, May has been reduced to cultivating the very states most implicated in fostering Salafi-jihadis.

A stronger government was meant to be the outcome of this election, but Nurse May is selling rose-tinted fantasies about an isolated post-Brexit Britain in the age of Trumpism. A realistic discussion of these grim prospects would have been useful.

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