How Does Britain Maintain Relevance in a Changing World?

Tim Marshall on the Political Future of Post-Brexit England

Britain’s instinct post-2016 has been to look to the United States. Given America’s continuing political and economic power, this makes sense; but there are now differences to the 20th-century rationales for doing so. In the Cold War, it wasn’t just politically unacceptable to do major trade deals with Russia, it was of limited economic value. But this is not the case with 21st-century China, which, along with the EU and the US, is one of the three modern entities with massive purchasing power. So another hybrid strategy will be required, one that sticks with Washington, but somehow leaves the door open for good political and economic relations with Beijing. It will be, as the diplomats in the Foreign Office like to say, by way of understatement, “challenging.” However, a clear indication of what the British believe to be their best option was seen in the summer of 2021 when its new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, was dispatched to the South China Sea with ten US Marine Corps F-35 jets on board.

The US still has significant interests in a stable Europe, Middle East, and Africa, but its pivot to the Pacific is real, and to attract Washington’s attention and ensure access to its consumer market on favorable terms will require supporting it in all four regions mentioned. The US wants all the European states to take more responsibility for the defense of Europe and the stability of nearby regions, so that it can concentrate on the Pacific. The costs of maintaining a military capable of fighting abroad are huge but will be part of the price of an alliance with what remains the global superpower.

The UK will likely continue to attempt to slow, or somehow even reverse, the long goodbye between Washington and London. The demographic trends in the US mean that as each year passes, there are fewer Americans whose heritage looks back to the Old World, including Britain. The emotional ties that bind the two nations are loosening at the same time as the geopolitical priorities of the US change and it focuses on the Pacific region. There were glimpses of this in the Obama presidency. If it wishes to remain relevant to the US, the UK will at times need to play a supporting role to the superpower’s grand strategies, sometimes economically, sometimes diplomatically, sometimes militarily.

As we saw in Iraq, this does not always turn out for the best. In chess terms, the king will still be the US, and the queen will be American foreign policy as it moves around the board. Britain can be a knight, capable of making its own moves, but major British decisions will have to be referred to the king and queen to see how they fit with America’s game strategy. The lessons of the Suez debacle in 1956 showed that Washington is prepared to sacrifice its own ally. However, that is an extremely rare event and Britain does have a built-in advantage in remaining a key player—the geography and politics of the last three centuries are still relevant. As mentioned in chapter 1, the UK is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community, along with the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There’s nothing quite like this elsewhere in terms of its scope and abilities, and it gives each member unparalleled access to information to guide decision making.

As part of a wider economic policy, the UK would like to broaden Five Eyes into a loose trading partnership with deals conducted on favorable terms. Some British enthusiasts see this as an alternative to the EU. The flaw in that argument is distance. Five Eyes may collectively have a bigger population and more dynamic economy than the EU, but it is not located 20 miles from the southern coast of Britain. Nevertheless, there are elements to the idea that would attract all parties, such as guaranteed markets, commitment to trading standards, and dealing with states at the cleaner end of the corruption scale.

The UK is now free to seek individual trade deals with whatever countries it chooses, and places such as Japan have shown that it is possible to go it alone. The UK reached an agreement with the EU at the end of 2020 and negotiates with it as a single bloc, and dozens of other deals have been concluded as well—for example, with Mexico and Canada. But when it comes to China, the US, and the EU, the UK is at a disadvantage. It may be the second-biggest economy in Europe, but it will remain far smaller than the three 21st-century economic giants, and it will struggle to win future economic concessions in trade deals with them without substantial political concessions in return.

The following are only theoretical models, but, for example, the EU might link future agreements with a commitment to the UK signing up to “associate” status in an EU army, whereas the US might insist that it stays out of it. China, totally opposed as it is to Tibetan independence, would probably scupper a deal with the UK if a British prime minister invited the Dalai Lama for tea and biscuits in Downing Street. David Cameron did just that in 2012 and the following year, in April, while setting up a visit to Beijing, found that no senior leaders could find time to meet him. The visit was canceled, Downing Street let it be known that it had “turned a page” in its relationship with the Dalai Lama, and lo—Cameron went to Beijing in November in order to allow China to invest in Britain’s nuclear power plants.

Two and a half centuries after the American War of Independence, the British are coming again—to as many places as they can.

Politically, London now has much less influence within the EU; but that is not to say it won’t have friends in individual countries. One of them is likely to be Poland. It looks destined to be the “leader” of Eastern Europe, and it shares some of the British views on the value of the EU and NATO, such as that the former should be structured to restrain Germany within a successful trading bloc but not become a single entity, and that the latter ensures that the Russians do not head west. When the UK was an EU member, the two countries frequently voted for or against the same policies; their shared worldview has not changed just because one is no longer in the union.

Poland is not the only ally that can make a good fit for post-Brexit Britain. The EU is not Europe and Europe is not the EU. On the military and political front, there’s a strong case to be made for close relations not just with Poland but also with France.

The UK and France are easily the two strongest military forces in Europe. Both are concerned about Russian activity on many fronts, and both share concerns about instability in the Sahel and Sahara regions in North Africa and the associated effects of the mass movement of people northward. They already share a Common Security and Defence Policy, which, as long as it does not weaken NATO, the UK is happy to build on. There are several examples of France and the UK operating militarily together outside the EU and NATO frameworks. They were involved in Libya, remain active in Syria, and recently the UK moved to support the six thousand French troops in the Sahel.

There is also the well-established E3 format in which Germany, France, and the UK work together diplomatically to achieve common aims, the most notable example being the Iranian nuclear agreement. Looking north, it is in the interests of the UK and Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden to cooperate on a range of issues. Of those six countries, only three are EU members—a reminder that the UK may be able to construct power blocs outside the EU. If EU countries that are also in NATO do not take a robust line with perceived Russian aggression, the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and, to a lesser extent, the Nordics will all welcome the support of the UK.

The past decade has seen the emergence of “post-Atlanticist” thinking in Berlin and Paris, which makes many of their neighbors nervous. French president Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that NATO was “brain-dead” didn’t help confidence in the alliance, and has sparked a debate about whether Europe has to decouple from the US in its defense thinking and instead forge a robust European military. Given most European countries’ reluctance to spend on defense and inability to make quick decisions, such talk worries EU and NATO states east of Berlin.

Britain sits off the coast of Europe, watching carefully and assessing options. It is not in its interest to see the union disintegrate. A strong EU helps to maintain a prosperous market for UK goods and stability on the Continent. Dismantling the liberal and legal principles of countries that were, in living memory, dictatorships would encourage a return to the bad old days. In recent memory, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, parts of Germany, and several other countries were ruled by dictators. If the EU does fail, Britain can attempt to forge the new balance of power that will emerge. If the EU succeeds, Britain will work with it, albeit somewhat at arm’s length. In 2018 Brussels denied the UK access to the secure parts of its Galileo satellite navigation system, built to rival America’s GPS. This forced London to look at alternatives to achieve “strategic autonomy” in the satellite field, something it has yet to accomplish.

The opportunities and challenges for Britain will present themselves and change as countries adjust to the post–Cold War multipolar world, and we’ll find out if Britain has finally got past the days of empire and positioned itself to take advantage of these shifts.

britain

The UK remains a leading second-tier power in economic, political, and military terms. It retains its place among the Permanent Five members of the UN and is a senior partner in NATO, the Group of 7, and a founding partner of the Commonwealth. London is a global financial powerhouse; were it a nationstate, it would have the twentieth-largest economy in the world, bigger than that of Argentina. It is the capital of a country that continues to be a leader in soft power, with a quite astonishing output of culture attracting attention around the globe.

This is partially driven by the English language, which is spoken as a first tongue by upward of 400 million people and by more than 1 billion people as a second. It remains the main language of commerce and international legal contracts. The UK’s higher-education system continues to attract some of the brightest and best (and richest) students. Britain is home to three of the world’s top-ten-ranked universities—Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London. This contributes to the wealth of the nation and to its future soft power, as many foreign graduates go on to high political office when they return home. The BBC’s influence has declined, and Britannia no longer rules the airwaves, but its output is still listened to and watched around the world. Many of the UK’s former print-based media outlets such as the Economist, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail now have global audiences, with the latter two gaining a huge following in the US.

Sport continues to be a revenue earner, especially the English Premier League, as is the music industry and, despite Covid-19, tourism. People still come in droves, some fascinated by the institution of royalty, others by a different throne: a 2019 report from Northern Ireland’s tourist board said that 350,000 people had visited that year to see the Mourne Mountains, Cairncastle, and other locations where much of Game of Thrones was filmed.

That level of soft power is partially dependent on a strong economy, and maintaining it will allow the UK to remain a second-tier political and military power. To what degree depends on the choices it makes.

The UK faces many challenges. It has political divisions of a sort the public are not used to, and it is searching for a clearly defined diplomatic and military role. Of possible roles the defense of the realm is the easiest to assess, although, as we will see, that could change with Scottish independence. In the 1720s, the advantages of the Acts of Union uniting Scotland and England were kicking in. The 2020s may be a new era for Britain, but its geography hasn’t changed.

The UK has no current direct existential military threats. Russia may not be friendly, but its troops are not about to pour across the north European plain and arrive on the western coast of Europe. Germany and France are allies, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Indeed, as we have seen, there’s a scenario in which France becomes Britain’s strongest military ally in Europe.

Even if a threat appeared on the horizon, the UK’s current geography remains, for now, in its favor, as it has for three hundred years, ever since the union between England and Scotland. The list of potentially hostile countries capable of mounting an invasion is short: China and, at a push, Russia. As for the rest, if an enemy did not have a fleet of aircraft carriers, it would have to base itself close to the UK in order to gain air superiority; it would need to invade nearby countries, or dominate them over a long period. During that time, UK defenses would be upgraded, as they would also be if a neighboring country gradually became an enemy. In any event, in order to land forces you’d have to overcome two hundred UK combat aircraft and the Royal Navy.

The navy may have shrunk considerably but it is still a formidable armada, with two brand-new aircraft carriers and six destroyers that are among the most advanced in the world. To get to the UK would require getting past them. Among its fleet of submarines are four Vanguard-class vessels armed with nuclear missiles. At least one of them is always at sea, and well hidden. In the event of an amphibious assault the defender usually has the advantage, and even if you get ashore you still have to gain control of the entire island—something the Romans, Vikings, and Normans never quite managed.

It’s a situation that requires constant monitoring, but not one that keeps defense chiefs awake at night. What does disturb their sleep is the threat of mass-casualty terrorism, nuclear and cyber threats—and a restless Scotland.

What if Scotland became independent? What if it took with it, as it would, its share of the UK’s fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and ships? It gets more complicated. What if it insisted, as it would, that the Royal Navy remove its nuclear-armed submarines from its base at Faslane, on the west coast of Scotland, and close the nearby storage and repair base at Coulport? Faslane is a perfect sub base: it has deep water and quick access to the North Atlantic, where you can head up to the GIUK gap (Greenland, Iceland, UK), the old Cold War “kill zone,” in the event of a Soviet naval attack, or round to the North Sea and then down toward the English Channel. It’s not just Faslane, though; the questions keep coming: NATO membership? The air bases in the far north? Five Eyes? And so on.

The division of tanks, ships, etc., is relatively straightforward. It would be worked out on the basis of population, economics, and need. Faslane is a whole different world of pain. The Royal Navy can’t just power up and sail out. Where would the subs go? At a stroke the UK would lose its “continually at sea” nuclear deterrent. It would take many years and billions of pounds to replicate the base. The Ministry of Defence has done scenario planning for the event, but not at a serious level. In evidence to Parliament in 2013, Rear Admiral Martin Alabaster said, “It would be very difficult—in fact, I would almost use the word ‘inconceivable’—to re-create the facilities necessary to mount the strategic deterrent, without the use of Faslane and Coulport, somewhere else in the UK.” The loss of the air bases at Lossiemouth and Leuchars would give the RAF a headache. Most of the frequent interceptions of Russian aircraft heading toward the UK to test its defenses are in the airspace north of Scotland. Negotiations for temporary basing rights would require huge concessions from the rump UK and entail anger on both sides of the border.

“Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented.”

A Scottish application to join NATO would take years and be complicated by the Edinburgh government’s position on nuclear weapons. NATO would want assurances that nuclear-powered, possibly nuclear-armed, vessels could access Scotland’s ports. As for Five Eyes, it’s very much a give-and-give relationship, and a fledgling Scottish intelligence-gathering operation would not be in a position to give very much in return for what it was given, and is thus unlikely to be invited to join. Scotland would have its own armed forces, of course, and it’s likely that there would be a degree of cooperation with the UK; but whichever way you cut it, the island would no longer enjoy the strategic and geopolitical benefits of being a single entity.

In short, the rump UK (name and flag to be determined) would lose 8 percent of its population, 32 percent of its landmass, and 12,000 miles of coastline (according to Scottish government figures). It would face threats to its security: its military capacity would be reduced and there would be a shorter time frame for its early-warning systems as it would have to withdraw some of them from Scotland, which is closer to the potential threat of Russian jets coming in over the Norwegian Sea. The UK’s nuclear deterrent, in the shape of the submarines, could be parked in the US while another naval base was built, but this is not the sort of logistical headache the service chiefs want.

As for why Britain needs such a deterrent, supporters point to the potential threat of Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The prospect of Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles heading toward London seems highly unlikely, but that’s not how state strategy works. Times change: in 1932 Germany’s Weimar Republic was on its knees and its military restricted in strength by the Treaty of Versailles. Nine years later, Nazi Germany was at the gates of Moscow.

Scottish independence might not be the end of the breakup. It would accelerate the slowly growing trend in Northern Ireland that unification with the Republic of Ireland might be a good idea. The republic was formed in 1922 after a campaign of violence achieved independence—an early example of the long-drawn-out roar of the dying British Empire.

These modern independence scenarios are directly connected to Brexit. The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 saw a 55 percent vote to remain in the UK, but that was when the UK was in the EU. In the Brexit referendum, support for the EU was considerably higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in England. One way to stay in that union is to leave another.

This is not an argument for or against Scottish independence, nor do the economic arguments for and against it concern us here; but a case can be made that if Scotland does leave, the damage to the UK’s international standing would be worse than that caused by it leaving the EU. Russia would be the country most pleased with the breakup as it would militarily diminish one of the two main powers in Europe. Few other countries would actively welcome it, but Paris and Berlin would note the reduced economic power of the nation that traditionally disrupted plans to create a unified force on the Continent.

It is, for now, speculative, but these are some of the choices facing the UK. It won’t be easy, and it will not go unchallenged as Britain heads out once again into the great sea lanes of the world.

In 1902 the UK’s most famous geopolitical analyst, Sir Halford Mackinder, wrote, “Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented.”

Some people dislike Mackinder’s writings because he was an imperialist and focused on the importance of geography on strategy. But he was also a supporter of democracy and of the League of Nations to help reduce great-power tensions, and he was horrified at the rise of Nazism, despite having inadvertently influenced some of its leaders’ thinking. The misuse of his ideas does not mean that the above quote is wrong. The reality of being an island off the coast of a continent has not changed; the shorelines of both are indented, providing deepwater ports which allow oceangoing trade. The way to look at Mackinder’s work is to accept geographical realities without seeking in them anything to justify aggression.

Two and a half centuries after the American War of Independence, the British are coming again—to as many places as they can. Post-empire and post-Brexit, they will try to come as friends and equals. It won’t always be friendly, or equal.

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The Power of Geography

Excerpted from The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World by Tim Marshall. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Tim Marshall.

Tim Marshall
Tim Marshall
Tim Marshall is a leading authority on foreign affairs with more than 30 years of reporting experience. He was diplomatic editor at Sky News, and before that was working for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio. He has reported from 40 countries and covered conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestsellers Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls; Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags; and Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire. He is founder and editor of the current affairs site TheWhatandtheWhy.com.





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