Britain’s a Small Country. Get Used to It.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a small country that is about to get even smaller. I know that this simple statement of fact will nevertheless infuriate many English people — and I do mean English people, not Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Last week, at India’s Raisina Dialogue, the Spanish foreign minister said that there were two types of countries in Europe: countries that are small and countries that do not know that they are small. Aside from the English, no Europeans in the audience were upset at this plain-speaking. Not even the French.
We know that Britain is about to get smaller because, as the consequence of its inability to resolve its own internal political contradictions, it looks increasingly likely that it will crash out of Europe with no deal a few weeks from now. Prime Minister Theresa May and her withdrawal agreement have just been delivered the biggest parliamentary defeat in recent British history; this, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has pointed out, merely raises the “risk of a disorderly withdrawal.”
May has resolutely ruled out another referendum, but this is more than just her failure. After all, even if somehow Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party manages to unseat her, Labour’s approach to Europe is as predicated on fantasies as May’s. Corbyn is on record as saying he wants a customs union with the European Union that allows Britain to negotiate its own trade deals; this is, quite simply, impossible. It reflects a notion of British indispensability that nobody outside England shares.
The British can blame no one but themselves. While they’ve never been enthusiastic Europeans, their decision to be the first country to withdraw from the EU is revealing of a basic inability to grasp their vastly diminished place in the world. That they are a member of the United Nations Security Council means little; that reflects merely the power that the British Empire had in 1945, not the U.K.’s power today. Nor is being a nuclear-weapons state much of a big deal any more: Such basket cases as North Korea have the bomb. Most of Britain’s foreign policy influence grows out of its loyalty to the U.S., and Britons’ disproportionate cultural influence derives from the fact that they happen to speak the same language as the world’s sole cultural superpower.
I say this not just as someone often accused of Anglophilia but also as a citizen of India — one of the very few countries that believes, according to polling organization YouGov, that Britain is individually more important than either Germany or France. Even so, there will be no preferential trade deals for a post-Brexit Britain from New Delhi unless more Indians are allowed to work in the U.K. This is not, of course, something that Brexit’s Little Britain will permit.
Countries that were once powerful have to work hard to realize they no longer are. Some, like France, have understood that they can hold on to some of their past glory through shaping and guiding a larger collective. Others abandon the quest altogether and find fulfillment elsewhere.
I write this column from Vienna, an imperial capital grander even than London and one that has also been long without an empire to rule. Austria’s capital, unlike Britain’s, has come to terms with its new status. A profoundly liveable city, it prospers as Western Europe’s bridgehead in the east, and it has an easy pride in its history of intellectual innovation and artistic excellence.
Two great art exhibitions were on display this January. In one, the Kunsthistorisches Museum gathered Bruegels from across the world, in unspoken memory of a time four centuries past when the word of a Viennese emperor was law in the painter’s native Antwerp. In another, the work of the artist and designer Koloman Moser was recalled, alongside the time when Vienna invented gracious, multi-ethnic middle-class living. Here, it is easy to remember that a legacy of greatness is just that — a legacy. Both Moser and the Habsburg Empire died 100 years ago and nobody in Austria pretends otherwise. By contrast, Britain’s cultish devotion to its past so warps its present that you might be forgiven for thinking that Winston Churchill was still alive and editing The Spectator.
Perhaps the fact that London is still in a way an imperial center has allowed the fantasy of British greatness to persist. But, the empire London now serves is a very different one from those of the past and lies beyond any one nation’s control: It is the empire of finance, which depends upon the approval of others and the impersonal physics of capitalism. Finance’s power has given Britain the confidence to undercut the basis for finance’s presence in Britain — its status as a gateway to the EU.
Perhaps, somehow, Brexit can still be avoided. But, that would only be the beginning of Britain’s task. It must still seek an identity for itself that is more suited to the role it can realistically play on the world stage. And it must admit that that role will be closer to Spain’s or Austria’s than that of the U.S. or China.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”
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