by Peter Franklin
Monday, 11
January 2021

There’s a world beyond China and the EU

A Chatham House report on Britain's international role is condescending
by Peter Franklin
Britain won’t need to roll out too many warplanes if it becomes a giant version of Switzerland. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Chatham House, a.k.a. The Royal Institute of International Affairs, is Britain’s premier foreign policy think tank. Today it publishes Global Britain, global broker — a report written by its long-serving director Robin Niblett. It’s tone is exactly what you’d expect from a pillar of our foreign policy establishment: slightly condescending.

Noting the “speed of global change in the past 10 years”, Niblett remarks “what a time for Britain to strike out on its own”. But Britain is not “on its own”. It is part of NATO, the WTO, the Commonwealth and a host of other multilateral organisations. What it is no longer part of is a project to build a supranational state — something that most Britons never agreed to and which few Remainers ever openly defended or even acknowledged.

So what we voted for, first and foremost, is to keep on being ourselves. Nevertheless, for those who insist on countries having a ‘role’ — our exit from the EU requires us to choose a new one. So what should that be?

Niblett doesn’t want us getting any ideas above our station. We must not “reincarnate” ourselves as a “miniature great power” he says. He even finds the language around a “Global Britain” problematic:

“The notion of ‘Global Britain’ may have a convenient alliteration with ‘Great Britain’, but in the minds of many, Britain became ‘Great’ by building a world-spanning empire whose injustices and inequities are now rightly being re-examined.”
- Robin Niblett, Chatham House

So much nonsense in so few words. For a start, the “injustices and inequities” of the British Empire are not only “now” being re-examined — in fact, it’s been decades since we’ve heard much else about it. Also the “minds of many” (whoever they might be) really ought to educate themselves: the “Great” in “Great Britain” has nothing to do with empire. Finally, the official language around a “Global Britain” is there to emphasise that Brexit is not an isolationist project.

It’s obviously not an imperialist project either. So if not ‘empire 2.0’ or ‘Little England’, what are we left with?

Robin Niblett wants the UK to “marshal its resources to be the broker of solutions to global challenges.” There are worst fates than being a super-Switzerland, but our future should be a more dynamic one. This should be a country which makes a virtue out of doing things differently — and even disruptively, where the established order could do with shaking up.

For that reason, and contra-Niblett, we should not align ourselves too closely with the European Union — or the United States for that matter. Indeed, we should set ourselves against the neo-imperial tendencies of all the big trade blocs.

Believe it or not, there is a world beyond the US, EU and China — and it is full of successful, sovereign, democratic nations. So let us be a productive and innovative member of that community.

Join the discussion

  • There seems to be something highly appropriate about the name ‘Niblett’ in this instance. A nibbling little man, devoid of all spirit or vision, and entirely typical of his class of civil servants and think tankers.

  • The future for our small Nation is to (like many other smallish countries) encourage innovation and allow business and trade to expand where they see a market. The major negative to this simple concept is our politicians who are controlled (or stymied) by the civil service. It is they who will as always find ways to make any Enterprise so complex as to be unworkable.
    So the answer? Drastically reduce non productive groups. Think tanks and qango’s for a start. Parliament needs no more than 100 MP’s. Likewise the House of Lords. Made up of a cross section of our society. Pay them well and elect every 5 years.
    Lots to do, simple but as always the elephant are the senior civil servants I can’t see a way round the massive anchor stopping us setting sail.

  • The Danish finance minister and the head of the RIIA both seems to think that wanting to make a big difference is important. Frankly, it’s not. Can’t we just concentrate on governing ourselves competently and letting people get on with their lives, without our leaders feeling the UK needs to project itself in the world or establish some special and important role?

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