Home / Articles / Blair, Britain, Europe and International Relations?
The present emergency arising from the 11 September attacks has pushed international relations way up the agenda of political attention but it still does not address the problem of how best to assess policies. In the case of Britain, the robust support that the Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the Americans dominates foreign perception. As a consequence, criticism of Blair is seen as in some ways essentially opposition to a resolute approach towards terrorism. In some quarters, this is indeed the case. However, domestic criticism of Blair is also a multi-faceted phenomenon of long duration that merits consideration on its own terms.
Assessing current British (or for that matter Continental European) debates on international relations simply in light of the present emergency, important as that is, often provides a narrow view that can miss the wider political context. It is understandable that people look at the bigger picture, but that picture can be seen from different angles.
Much domestic criticism of Blair rests on unease about his policies both external and domestic. In particular there is a feeling that his desire to remold Britain risks compromising long-established senses of identity. Blair and his ministers do not appear to have a clear understanding of what they mean by nation or state. The extent to which the constitutional experimentation seen since Labour gained power in 1997, which has so far led to the creation of assemblies in Wales and Scotland, and which may lead to regional assemblies within England, seems likely to lead to a replacement of the United Kingdom by an unstable coalition of polities and necessarily has implications for foreign and defense policies.
These will need to be “negotiated” within the British Isles: especially if competing political groupings are in power in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. For example, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists are more neutralist and critical of the USA than the other political parties in Scotland and Wales, while Irish nationalism has marked left- wing leanings and is closer to Fidel Castro and Colombian terrorism than to mainstream international politics.
The process of negotiation, never easy, will be even less so because the pretensions and prerogatives of the European Union extend far into what has until recently been regarded as domestic policy. It is naive to assume that it will be possible to keep this process politically separate from that of the settlement of differences between parts of the British Isles. The ambition of the European Union has markedly extended with the adoption of the single currency.
It is interesting to reflect on how British statesmen in the past responded to such constitutional innovation. In December 1798, George Canning, one of the most thoughtful Conservative politicians of the age, referred in Parliament to the new states then being created under the aegis of the imperial power of the French Revolutionaries: “the Cisalpine republic selected as a living subject for her [France’s] experiments in political anatomy; whom she has delivered up tied and bound to a series of butchering, bungling, philosophical professors to distort and mangle, and lop, and stretch its limbs into all sorts of fantastical shapes, and to hunt through its palpitating frame the vital principle of republicanism” [Parliamentary History, vol. 34, column 55].
Aside from the “British” dimension to the question, there is also the problem of optimism. A government that came to power on the basis of welcoming change and rejecting the past is necessarily one that is optimistic about the prospect for improvement and a better future. This also has a partisan aspect, with the specific denial of attitudes and policies associated with both Conservatives and “Old Labour.” Blair’s effective presentation of himself as “New Labour” helps in rejecting established assumptions of national interest and policy, but an assessment of positions in terms of “New Labour” confuses what might at present be thus identified and the more long-term plasticity of the concept.
There is a danger that Blair’s own views will be seen as co- terminous with, indeed the definition of, New Labour, when, in practice, the rejection of what is presented as Old Labour, including in foreign policy, draws on a wider range of attitudes and developments. The rejection of the past currently associated with New Labour is assisted by the sense that the end of the Cold War has created an opportunity and need for new assumptions. Blair has encouraged a stronger EU foreign policy and defense identity for the UK, and is keen to have Britain adopt the single currency. However, it is by no means clear that the EU is capable of fulfilling the hopes placed upon it in this sphere. It has not only failed to meet UK needs for an effectively managed free trading area, but has also proved inadequate as a body through which to advance wider interests elsewhere in Europe. For example, Britain has found its freedom in international trade negotiations, a key aspect of foreign relations, circumscribed, and its interests slighted. The EU itself suffers from disunity, a lack of military resources, and an ambitious extension of interests and commitments.
This policy is shot through with an optimism and a universalism that is troubling. The latter rests in large part on the attempt to make human rights a central feature in policy, at once replacing the moral imperative of resisting Soviet imperialism, as well as explaining and justifying power projection.
Europe is a region that bears little relationship to long- established British national interests. Instead, these are being reconfigured (or Europeanized) in a policy that testifies to the governmental view that Europe is the crucial international unit for Britain and also the optimistic hope that it can be made to work. This Europeanization reflects an old-fashioned emphasis on propinquity (nearness) which dates from mid-twentieth century assessments of security and economic relations. In practice, this view is flawed, as propinquity means far less in terms of the global economics and geopolitics of the present day. Furthermore, the emphasis on Europe is a flawed assessment of the multiple links of the UK. As I have shown in my History of the British Isles (2nd edition, Palgrave, 2002), for centuries, the UK has been closer to Boston, Kingston, or New York, than to Bari, Cracow, or Zagreb, and this situation had not changed. Indeed, cultural, economic and demographic developments over the last half-century, ranging from the impact of American television and inward investment to New Commonwealth immigration, have accentuated these links and indicated the limited usefulness of a definition of Britain in terms of Europe.
The Blair government’s assessment of British relations with the EU rests on the tendency to argue that their policy is the only one that can work. In practice, however, interdependability with the EU did, and does, not dictate the contours and consequences of the relationship and there is no such inevitability. Choices on policy existed, and exist, but that fact has long been denied by politicians and polemicists keen to advocate a particular point of view: the deterministic polemics of Euro-enthusiasm.
Blair— the youthful Mr. Toad of British politics, with his faddish enthusiasm for novelty and his determination to ignore an ancestral heritage— clearly feels that he can square the circle, or rather circles. He intends to reconcile traditional assumptions with new identities and to keep different alignments and commitments— especially NATO and the EU, USA and the Continent— in concert and, indeed, mutually supportive.
The attempt is likely to end in failure. Certainly the EU has not fulfilled boasts of providing an effective international force. For example, Britain and France found themselves bearing most of the European military burden in the Balkans in the 1990s. Furthermore, the reduction in military expenditure by other European states clearly troubles the USA and suggests that future crises will find Britain bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. The history of Britain’s relations within the EU in the 1990s and 2000s does not suggest that bearing a heavy military burden will yield benefits in other fields. This failure can ironically be seen as part of a post-1945 trend in which successive British governments have exaggerated the likely benefit that would flow from high military expenditure. In the case of New Labour, seeing the benefit in European terms does not lessen the error.
The Blair government’s support for greater European integration and for a European identity for the UK has lessened the UK’s ability to retain practices and politics of self-reliance, of national accountability, and of reacting to developments on their merits and with reference to the contingencies of the moment. This is particularly troubling given the volatility of the current international system. Blair falls squarely into the Whiggish tradition of interventionism and the creation of systems to solve problems and prevent their recurrence; as opposed to the conservative tradition of prudence. Like the Whigs, Blair is apt to underrate the pragmatic and prudential approach to foreign commitments that stresses concrete national interests rather than abstract principles and systemic approaches as factors driving international politics.
In short, Blair’s domestic and foreign policies work to diminish British identity and sovereignty, especially in regard to the EU. Simultaneously, however, he has taken on for the UK since September 11 the role of being a special interlocutor between the US and Europe. This is a role the UK has played in the past, but not in the context of other domestic and foreign policies that seek to merge Britain into the EU. The balancing act the situation requires could erode confidence that Blair knows where he is taking the country.
The foregoing discussion may explain why there has been no rallying round the leader equivalent to the situation in the USA after 11 September. Indeed far from it. Circumstances are naturally different— Britain’s leading ally was attacked, not Britain itself— but more is at stake than this. Foreign policy has exposed deep fissures within the Labour party, with considerable opposition towards America’s Middle Eastern policy, while the Liberal Democrats have clung to their confidence in the United Nations. The most pro-American party, the Conservative party, is in opposition.
From the American perspective, the British are far firmer allies than any of the other major European powers. Indeed, American disenchantment with Germany, France, and ‘Europe’ serves as an interesting comment on American policy over the last two decades. Having been closest to Britain during the Reagan years, the Americans under Bush senior moved closer to Germany and, alongside the French, actively backed German reunification despite Margaret Thatcher’s doubts. Over a longer period, American governments have supported the creation of the European Union seeing it as an anchor of anti-Communism, and pushed Britain to join, even though, in the event, the logic of an EU foreign and military policy has risked compromising NATO and creating a critic of American policies. Looking to the future, the mutual lack of comprehension about American and continental European attitudes and assumptions the present crisis has revealed raises serious issues of political management on both sides of the Atlantic. Understanding the parameters within which allies can be expected to operate demands knowledge, deftness and expertise, and this point underlines how delicate the china may be in the transatlantic shop.
Whatever the outcome of the present emergency, Blair’s sense that he could square circles has begun to wear thin, and this, in turn, makes the Prime Minister’s roles as the primary intermediary between the USA and EU more problematical. While the UK will probably remain closely tied with the USA and EU, it will have difficulties influencing policy in either and will consequently fail as interlocutor. Pleasing as it is for a Briton to see his country as a bridge between America and Europe, both sides would be wiser to avoid relying totally on a span with questionable political moorings.