Strategy is the art of gaining the greatest influence at least cost. For at least a generation the British elite have specialised in gaining the least influence at the greatest cost – be it in Europe, the transatlantic relationship or the wider world. Why?
The factors are many but put simply Britain’s political elite have made just about every strategic mistake there was to make over the past fifty years or so – apologising for Britain abroad, apologising for old Britain at home. Today an impotent, rudderless political class lacks strategic imagination and is incapable of strategic leadership. All too conscious of failure the state is resorting to creeping authoritarianism and political correctness to quash the concerns of middle Britain about the consequences of decadent decline; the excessive influence of special interest groups over government – be it big business or minorities. Common sense and the will of the majority have been cast asunder. Sadly, it is hard to imagine Britain surviving the next fifty years. Surveying the wreckage there is very little for Britons to be proud of.
The strategic political correctness that suffuses the British elite is evident in British foreign policy – the longest post-Imperial apology in history. Keeping foreigners happy at almost any cost is not national strategy. The retreat from international realism has been reinforced by a retreat from domestic realism. The constant and failed ideological experimentation on the British people by both the political left and right has led to a society so fractured that all government can do today is talk of Britain as a series of ‘communities’.
Abroad so far and fast is Britain’s retreat from real strategic that soon London will no longer be able to mask systemic failure by appealing to and exploiting fading symbols of past glories. The European crisis will reveal the extent of Britain’s retreat from influence; ever more cost for ever less influence – the very antithesis of sound strategy.
London’s retreat from strategic influence was painfully apparent at a meeting at which I spoke last week on transatlantic defence relations. As ever the British unable to talk strategy preferred to talk cost and capabilities, or rather the lack of them. My American colleagues tried hard to be sympathetic eschewing what they saw as London’s doom and gloom by looking for new ways to cheer the British up in this age of aggravated austerity. And yet even as I spoke I knew in my heart that the strategic depression that pervades all and every corridor of Whitehall would ensure nought would come of it. London has given up, surrendered. Now resigned to being a very third rate power my once great country has become a strategic basket case.
This lack of duty and responsibility at the top of politics is particularly unfair on the proud men and women who have worn the uniforms of the British armed forces with such distinction and who have put their lives on the line for a Britain that no longer exists. Rather, they serve a political class so utterly self-obsessed and so lacking in any vision of what Britain could still achieve in this world if just for once they did what they are paid to do; lead. Sadly, British leadership today has been reduced to little more than political PR. Never have so many been so poorly led by so few so high.
Talking of which some fifty metres from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) where I was speaking British Defence Minister Dr Liam Fox was resigning. He had in his own words ‘blurred’ the distinction between private and public life. Allegedly he had given inappropriate access to a right-wing friend allegedly close to foreign powers who had also appeared frequently during Dr Fox’s official trips abroad allegedly implying an official status he had no right to. Sadly, there is probably more to come out but what is clear is that another landmark has been surrendered on the political road to public contempt.
No wonder the British people are abandoning politics in despair worn down by the essential hypocrisy and self-serving shallowness of contemporary British politics. The average life expectancy now of a British Defence Secretary is one year; that means a pool of six politicians are needed to get through one parliamentary term or six scandals – which is more or less the same thing these days. There is a joke there somewhere.
Why does this matter? For Britain the Fox resignation marks simply the latest example of a political elite too many of whom believe in a culture of entitlement. In this case it also shows a Coalition Government so ill-disciplined as to be virtually dysfunctional deep into perhaps the worst crisis since the Second World War. It also reveals a culture of deceit in government reinforced by a belief that the people cannot be trusted with the facts. Not because the facts are inimical to national security but because the facts are too embarrassing for political leaders.
As I walked through the Victorian grandeur of Whitehall I was struck by Britain’s past mocking Britain’s present. Britain’s little leaders – both left and right – in big rooms huddling behind their thin rhetorical facades awaiting the economic equivalent of the Blitz. Somewhere to the East something nasty is happening in ‘Europe’ (one is never really in Europe in Britain) about which apparently the British can do nothing but yet for which the British will pay.
London is thus drowning in a sea of rhetorical irrelevance between the capitals that do matter – Washington, Berlin and Paris. Britain is the big loser in the strategic influence game; no longer America’s ‘special relation’ and utterly marginalised in Franco-German efforts to save Europe from disaster.
What a little country Britain has become…and how cheap it sells itself.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.