'Global Britain': Déjà vu?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: September 06, 2018 21:57:44 | Updated: September 08, 2018 21:25:34


Except in a symbolic capacity, Prince Charles rarely enters the domain of international politics. Yet, in early July 2018, to end a conference on a West Balkan summit in London, he outlined what might otherwise have become kernels of a reconfigured post-Brexit British foreign policy. Jeremy Hunt, the just-appointed British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, was present at this Clarence House gathering. His boss, the beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May, is still struggling to deliver the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU). As her equally anxious voters begin to wonder if this departure is the best move, Prince Charles's 'words of wisdom' may supply temporary relief, particularly when a former Bank of England Governor, Lord King, calls the approach "incompetent."

Prince Charles talked of a 'Global Britain'. It fitted perfectly with May's post-Brexit 'globalised Britain' campaign. His call for 'reconciliation' was based on "forgiveness, understanding and . . . tremendous courage and enlightened leadership." These have not emanated from May as yet, making her cavalier exit approach (by March 2019 no less), even more treacherous. Invited to the gathering (correspondents are usually not allowed in), BBC diplomatic correspondent, James Lansdale, drew three themes from that speech to help navigate Britain's choppy waters: making further use of Great Britain's capacity to convene other country leaders (much as Prince Charles had done to get an over-stretched Angela Merkel to come to the Clarence House get-together), to rally them for a new cause; emphasising rules and laws for a change (over promoting British values, and in its foreign policy-making); and prioritising substance as much as style (if not more, to produce what Lansdale called a 'policy with edge').

Great Britain was not only the first 'global' empire-building European country in modern history, but also the one with the most durable relationship and densest imperial flows/interactions: Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1877 ten years after the Canadian Confederation emerged, while Australia and New Zealand were already on their way to joining Canada as British dominions (which they became in 1907). Here was a well-spring Britain stills draw upon today to convey a convening power few other countries, if any, can bring to bear. One example, the British Commonwealth summits, illustrates the point, (though these may not always adequately resolve the issues discussed).

Lansdale considers British 'common law' is a better rallying point than British values for the country, especially amid intensely rising value-laden global competition. With 'common law' practised across a wider spectrum of that 'global' context than, say, 'civil law', which France, Portugal, and Spain implanted across their own colonies, more institutional space (organisations, for example) is receptive to Britain cultivating its second 'global' foray (the 'first' being the imperial quest that began with the Tudor dynasty in the late 16th Century). Accomplishments along this pathway, than through British values, may supply the much-needed cutting-edge diplomacy Britain needs in the 21st Century.

Finally, in an age of ever-increasing divisions and collisions, 'reconciliation' policy approaches cannot just hide behind rules and laws: substance, precisely over the tangible issues responsible for those divisions and collisions, must also be present. Combined with the two other themes, 'reconciliation' gestures open a unique opportunity in this messy world for Britain.

Not without irony, the Prince of Wales's sagacious policy recommendation accents the only British institution that used to do all of the above repeatedly, successfully, and symbolically: the monarchy. Whether this is his dress-rehearsal for formally replacing the Queen at the helm of the British Commonwealth, as he had done on an ad-hoc basis earlier this year at its summit, the timing to recreate Britain's 'global' past is pertinent: it provides the 'divorce' from the European Union that Theresa May seems so bent on getting, the sooner for her, the better for an anxious country; and it helps place Great Britain as an alternate 'third-party' mediator should any disputant country start tiring of going to other world-leader claimants, such as the United States, Russia, or China.

May's government has not exactly ignored the need to latch on to India, now a more robust global player than in the empire days, nor Africa, now a continent offering more opportunities than those that once colonised it. Yet, India prefers the larger network of Europe than Britain: any British 'divorce' with Europe might find India splitting the two unequally, accenting Europe. After all, it cannot headquarter its corporations in London, the world's pre-eminent financial centre, when European business is both larger and reluctant to permit such 'back-door' business entry into Europe from Great Britain.

African countries, too, have their eyes on the far larger China pie worth $60 billion, negotiated by more than 30 African leaders going to Beijing. May's Africa visit this summer, contrariwise, was highlighted more by her social stardom (learning new dancing steps) and platitude-filled economic agreements. Boasting barely one-tenth of African trade as the European Union and just over 5.0 per cent of China's African trade, Britain's African climb will be steep.

China, Japan, and all other major economic powers need wider markets and more partners than just Great Britain. Even the very chief executive Theresa May believes is staunchly behind her vis-à-vis Europe, Donald J. Trump, was aghast at some of her trade-related policies. As came out so embarrassingly during his mid-July London visit, a Sun interview exposed a different Trump mindset than his subsequent effusive press conference conversations with May.

Mark Malloch-Brown's piece in Asia Times, 'End of global Britain', may be more relevant and pertinent. He detects a 'Global Britain' counterforce in Britain, evident in efforts to (a) lead an 'Anglosphere', when, in reality, it has become a 'weak West European link'; (b) sustain an Empire mindset over colonial and coloured people, as evident in the 'Windrush' embarrassment over the maltreatment of England's West Indian migrants; (c) resort to 'Britain First' mercantilism, that is, selling military weapons for profit, instead of seeking the 'reconciliation' Prince Charles advocated; (d) align, like Trump himself, with authoritarian leaders more than democratic; and (e) face, alongside the United States, "lines . . . in essence severed," rather than consolidated (Asia Times, July 04, 2018).

Small wonder, then, that Prince Charles is stepping in, not by design, but owing to a disturbingly growing gap between compromise and conflict globally. With her fingers burned by the Brexit vote, Theresa May is proving incapable of handling so much, with holes in her reputation unwittingly exposed by the visiting Trump.

Against a globally neutered British political leader, the Prince of Wales stands at a critical juncture in British history where only the monarchy can salvage the country's foreign policy blemishes and restore reputation. At worst, his entry may help soften the crash looming ahead of an isolated and helpless Britain. At best, it might give that fading subject called British foreign policy some of its lost glow, mind you, not for substantive reasons, but symbolically. Perhaps that might be all that Britain should concentrate on as it enters the 21st Century, how to rebuild its confidence, since substance and stature stem from precisely that.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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