Is Great Britain still that ‘Great’? | Adam Boulton

Is Great Britain still that ‘Great’? | Adam Boulton
  • PublishedApril 15, 2024

Britain may not be ‘great’ in the sense that it is no longer a dominant world power like the US or China today but it is defeatist to write it off as a ‘middle-sized power’.

Soul searching about the UK’s role in the world has broken out again following the publication of a pamphlet by senior diplomats including Mark Sedwill, a former Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser.

The World in 2040: Renewing The UK’s Approach To International Affairs is being denounced for suggesting the Foreign Office should change its name and tone down its grand headquarters built in 1868 at the height of Great Britain’s imperial pomp.

The authors believe a lower profile would befit the reality of our station in the world.

“The UK finds itself today in a changed role as a medium-sized ‘off shore’ power”, the report asserts without explicitly mentioning Brexit.

“Our future has more in common with G20 nations like Japan and in Europe like Norway and Switzerland whose economies are closely linked to major economic neighbours.”

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron at Government House for the annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN), in Adelaide, Australia March 22, 2024. AAP Image/Matt Turner via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NEW ZEALAND. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN AUSTRALIA.
Image:Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron visiting Australia in March. Pic: Reuters

The report argues “the UK has often sought to promote an image of ‘greatness’ to the world which today seems anachronistic. We will be envied for what we are good at, not what we say we are good at”.

This modest proposal to “work with others to try and address the challenges we collectively face” contrasts in style to the bold figure cut this week by Foreign Secretary David Cameron as he bestrode the globe’s biggest diplomatic stage, in the United States, to talk tough on Ukraine and Gaza.

Lord Cameron is not a man who thinks it is time to play down the ‘Great’ in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For that matter, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer agree with him.

Even Mr Cameron’s detractors admit that he looks the part that we have come to expect of the top British representative abroad. The New York Times described the Foreign Secretary as “almost” a prime minister.

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the 2024 Senior Club Championship award ceremony at his Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. March 24, 2024. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo/File Photo
Image:Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the 2024 Senior Club Championship award ceremony in Florida last month. File Pic: Reuters

Donald Trump certainly would have not invited him to dinner in Mar-a-Lago unless he saw him as a fitting match for his own stratospheric estimate of his own importance. Trump’s Republican sidekick, House Speaker Mike Johnson, looked puny in comparison being “too busy” to hear Mr Cameron’s arguments.

The British government says it is important to build links to the man who may be the next US president but Mr Cameron’s visit had, at best, mixed results. The British are not the only ones who are status conscious. Mr Cameron was not granted even a “brush by” or “drop in” by President Joe Biden, perhaps because he had not forewarned the White House he would be visiting his election rival.

Does the UK’s US-centric approach, simultaneously presumptuous and bootlicking, benefit Britain? Rather than trying to be both a great power and “junior partner to America”, as Mr Cameron put it to me on his first prime ministerial visit to Washington, should the UK be pursuing a broader network of co-operative relationships, as the report suggests?

Former UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor to the Cabinet Office Lord Mark Sedwill. File pic: Reuters
Image:Former UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser to the Cabinet Office Lord Mark Sedwill. File pic: Reuters

Great Britain was a geographical description before it became a patriotic boast. Dating back at least 800 years, Grete Britaigne was simply the bigger space where most Britons lived in contrast to Britanny, the lesser Britain in physical terms.

Former PM Lord Cameron presided over the weaponising of the word Great. A campaign launched in 2011 by the Foreign Office, of all departments, morphed innocuously into a series of posters for the 2012 London Olympics.

These celebrated the host country’s assets such as science, sport, or music, proclaiming each one “is Great”.

This was ahead of Mr Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, though not Ronald Reagan’s use in 1980 of the same campaign phrase.

By 2015 “Britain is Great” had become an official campaign across all government departments. It is still in operation and on display in the UK’s official outposts around the world.

‘Broken Britain’

In a write up for the official civil service quarterly, the cabinet office noted that it worked even in these times of economic constraint, insisting “you don’t need lots of resource but you do need plenty of passion” to get the message across.

The UK and the rest of the world have changed a lot since London 2012. Great Britain may not be wiping out widespread popular perceptions of “Broken Britain”.

In spite of dirty rivers, a struggling NHS, increasing inequality, creaking infrastructure, a declining military and high taxes, we Britons like telling each other that things are “Great”.

There are the Great British Bake-Off and the Great North RunBoris Johnson won the election in 2019 with the pledge to make this “the greatest place on earth”. The government’s latest plan is for Great British RailwaysLabour promises to deliver Great British Energy.

The diplomats who produced the report include Lord Sedwill, Thomas Fletcher, a former ambassador and Number Ten foreign policy advisor and Moazzam Malik, ex-Foreign Office Director General.

They have represented the UK abroad and to foreigners. They know that you can’t always get what you want and that insisting you are great can be grating.

It is easy for their political masters at home to borrow Boris Johnson’s vocabulary and criticise gloomsters, doomsters and naysayers, while doing nothing themselves to deliver better results in practice.

Britain may not be great in the sense that it is no longer a dominant world power like the US or China, but it is defeatist to write it off as a middle-sized power.

There are around 200 nations in the world. As the report acknowledges, the UK has the sixth largest economy and is a significant “soft power” with world class universities second only to the US.

The UK is also 21st in GDP per capita, one of only five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a possessor of an independent nuclear deterrent, a leading defence contributor to NATO, the prime mover of the Commonwealth and the origin of the world language, English.

Even the colonial overtones of the Empire, which the report wants to downplay, point to global reach, even if it is troubled. Great Britain should not boast but there is no need for the UK to run itself down either.

It might be better to rename the currently cumbersome Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as simply The Foreign Office rather than to rebrand it apologetically as the Department for International Affairs – which would in any case provoke tabloid investigations of diplomatic bed hopping.

Wherever politicians and officials stand on these pressing questions, argument about words, flags and what pictures to hang on the wall is a distraction from what really matters for Britain’s future.

Lord Sedwill notes dryly in his report that “influence abroad arises from political and economic success at home” and not from how great we claim we are.


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