George Maggs works as a constituency coordinator for Charlotte Leslie, and is a final year PhD researcher at the University of the West of England. He writes in a personal capacity.
Over the centuries, Britain has often had a very confused understanding of what it is to act in the national interest. As a country, we have been praised by so-called ‘realists’ because of our willingness to deal with, and often to sell arms to, countries with which we have very little in common. We have historically had few loyalties to other countries, and have not been afraid to rescind on alliances. We are said to have “permanent interests, not permanent friends”.
We have also tended to view the national interest in economic terms, and have been unwilling to concern ourselves too deeply with the welfare of other countries, even when nations have been compiled of people who would consider themselves to be British in every sense other than actually living on our small windswept collection of islands. Thinking and acting in such a way fundamentally confuses what it is to act in our best interests, and has led to some disastrous foreign and domestic policy decisions. Here are three examples.
First, the refusal of parliament and King George III to provide a modicum of what would today be termed ‘localism’ to regional affairs in America, and the decision to impose import duties without representation in the British parliament, led to the eventual loss of the American colonies. The inability of the British state to view British subjects living further afield as their own resulted in perhaps the most costly “foreign policy” mistake ever to befall the United Kingdom.
Second, amidst the long and troubled history between Britain and Ireland, Britain refused to give the Irish representation in parliament until the Act of Union. And even then, Catholics were barred from sitting in the Commons until the Roman Catholic Relief Act. Many Brits on the mainland still viewed those with a Catholic faith as ‘un-British’, notwithstanding the fact that many Irish Catholics were descended from Old English landowners, particularly in the south of the island.
Indeed, Britain continued to treat its Irish citizens abominably during the potato famine. Despite many thousands of Irish giving their lives for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, rather than viewing the welfare of the Irish not only as a moral imperative but as a matter of supreme national interest, Britain foolishly thought this interest was best served exporting food from the island for short-term economic gain.
Understandably, this generated huge resentment (as well as death and misery) from the Irish. Yet, despite this, Irish support for the Union grew during the subsequent 50 years, and held relatively steady during the Great War. That was until the British state’s shocking and heavy-handed putdown of the botched ‘Easter Rising’. This, for many Irish men and women, highlighted again the contempt they felt that ‘the British’ had held them in for generations. And so, once again, the inability to extend British identity to those living ‘off-shore’ created another disaster – cumulating in the partition of Ireland in 1920 and a simmering conflict in Northern Ireland which lingers to this day.
Finally, there was our decision to join the EEC. This was disastrous not only in the sense that, 44 years after accesion in 1972, Britain would decide to drag herself out of the protectionist bloc, but also because, once again, the decision fundamentally misunderstood what it was to act in the national interest.
After the Second World War, the ratio of the UK’s per capita GDP in comparison to the six founding members of the EEC declined steadily from 1945 to 1972. As a result, it was thought that Britain had ‘joined the wrong club’ – that European free trade with ETFA and global free trade with the Commonwealth was not delivering the goods, and that a change was therefore needed.
Yet in order to join the EEC, Britain would need to halt free trade with its Commonwealth allies and impose a ‘Common External Tariff’ on all imported Commonwealth goods. It is difficult to underestimate the impact this had on the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand economies of the time – coming less than 30 years after they had stood with us side by side during World War Two against one of the most barbaric regimes the world has ever known. This decision felt to them like a betrayal – because that’s precisely what it was.
It is often said that Britain ‘stood alone’ in fighting the Nazis in 1941, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Britain would surely have fallen had it not been for the sacrifices of Empire and Dominion forces who volunteered to help the mother country in its hour of need. To offer just one example: on the day that the war broke out, New Zealand acted instinctively in support of Britain, with the Prime Minister of the time, Joseph Savage, broadcasting the following public statement from his sick-bed:
“I am satisfied that nowhere will the issue be more clearly understood than in New Zealand – where for almost a century, behind the sure shield of Britain we have enjoyed and cherished freedom and self-government. With gratitude for the past and with confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain, where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
After the blood and sacrifice of the war, the bonds between Britain and the Commonwealth remained firm. During the Queen’s coronation, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies said that “we in Australia, of course, are British, if I may say so, to the boot heels… we stand together – our people stand together – till the crack of doom”.
And yet Britain was, tragically, unable to reciprocate the same shared sense of loyalty and identity that Australians – and indeed members other Commonwealth nations – had extended to us. Just 20 years later, Britain joined the EEC in search of economic gains which never materialised. It is difficult to imagine any act further removed from the national interest – which is always about so much more than just trade and economics, but about loyalty, history and identity.
Once we leave the EU, not only will we have a chance to right these historic wrongs and again seek closer ties with the Commonwealth, but we will also have a chance to re-define what it is to act in the national interest. This should extend far beyond merely trying to add an extra percentage point or two to our GDP. Economic growth and stability is not an end, but a means to an end. Our real interests derive from knowing who you can rely on, forging understandings and ties with nations that will stand by us when no one else will, and extending shared identities to countries which have traditionally considered themselves British in all but name.
Yet perhaps for our entire history, we have been blind to this reality. Britain has always been pretty good at making enemies. We need to become much better at keeping our friends.