Pictured: Dr. Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House
Photo: Chatham House
Harry C. Blaney III
Date Line London
Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) hosted a major meeting June 23rd, led by speaker Dr. Robin Niblett the Director of Chatham House, on the topic “Britain’s Place in the World.” The topic would normally be rather expected and unremarkable, but in the present circumstances it is critical and relevant.
Without a doubt Britain is at odds with itself about the proper place of Britain in world affairs. It is battling between those who want the UK to have a major or prominent place in global and European affairs and those who wish to withdraw from Europe and even the world.
Some even wish to disassociate from America. There are also elements that care not a wit about the rest of the world. They mainly express that view by a hate of immigrants and those that do not look like them. This view is also expressed through voting for mostly the right wing Tories or the far right and racist United Kingdom Independent party known as UKIP. They tend to blame Britain’s problems on the immigrants, on the EU. They sense a decline in influence which this group attributes to anyone but themselves and their bad policies.
This trend was exacerbated by the impact of the recession, austerity policies, and the indifference of the last Tory coalition to the poor. This new Conservative and now even more ideological government is making war on the poor and unemployed in Britain. There is generally a sense of total loss of humanity or caring for those most in need.
Some of this was covered in earlier posts from this series from London. The key words remain: despair, resignation, and a bit of uncertainty in a world still dominated by much conflict and known and unknown risks. The view, backed by polls, is the British public wants Britain to still have a global reach but do not want to pay the price for such a role. This is not surprising in either Britain or in America.
In the presentation and Q&As at Chatham House with Robin Niblett, he made the argument for continued focus on an “inner circle of Europe”, then with a wider circle including the NATO/Atlantic orbit, and the one beyond which would encompass not just the Commonwealth but much of the rest of the world including China. If this sounds like the old British world view, it is. But this is with a bit of a downgrade to connections with the United States which is a growing view here among the far right and the far left and some between.
Niblett’s main aim in this address seemed to be to focus on the need to keep Britain in the EU given the threat of an exit in late 2016. The other aim was to argue the case for Britain being at the center of European decision making, while making money with a priority on global financial and commercial strategy especially with China as the new economic powerhouse.
Part of this is a bow to the economic power of China, but it seems to include overlooking China’s military ambitions and attacks on democracy in Hong Kong. The British government seem to be their old pragmatic selves, capitalist and global financial driven, only even more so now. But it appears they are increasingly indifferent to the global spread of ugliness, cruelty, conflict and real humanitarian action — even as British tourists were being killed in Tunisia.
Niblett observed ironically that America seemed to be “ambivalent” about its role in the world. I am not sure if this was directed towards Obama or the Republican opposition. From my perspective, the right wing GOP is not just “ambivalent” but hostile to real responsible engagement in the world’s challenges and is a destructive force that Obama has to deal with. No mention in this meeting was made of the many points of deep and difficult engagement that America under President Obama and Secretary John Kerry have shown in dealing with Russia under Putin, global warming, trying to find peace in the Middle East, the pivot to Asia, and our effort to address Iran’s nuclear programs. I might sadly add with little real help from London except mostly in words and not resources.
Niblett did little to suggest how Britain could do much more with America to solve the world’s problems other than words. He did hope that these issues could be solved, and pushed for the government to make them the priorities with America or anyone for that matter. He said that America was just one of many bilateral balances and relations for the UK. But many voices here that I heard and talked to are uneasy with this new “small England” stance and I assume even Niblett himself senses a deep unease at the trajectory of Britain and the world.
Here the newspapers are talking about cuts in foreign aid that once was vouched safe from such cuts by the Tories. Niblett and other voices in these meetings deplored the cuts, but few here offered the idea of added taxes on the rich as one solution. The right wing newspapers, which means almost all in the UK, seems more interested in the government’s plans to cut business taxes and those for the very rich, than protecting the nation’s infrastructure, education, or national security or helping in any real sense deal with the world’s ills.
The idea that global strength comes from domestic growth in productivity, R&D investment, and in better education of the citizens was touched on, but more in terms of how much the rich sector of the society contributes than in the cost of inequality and unemployment. Low productivity was mentioned but not in the context of the government putting the average worker of this nation back into good jobs, since they seem in their policies only to punish those that can’t find jobs that actually produce goods, rather help those that slosh money around without benefit to the nation as a whole and slice money just to the very rich in the City.
The key decisions that Britain faces in this critical time is the future of the well being of its less affluent majority and for more engagement in building a safer world. Effective decisions are threatened by the Tories and their allies, of antipathy by many English for integration with Europe, and for that matter, with the world. Except, it seems, by some of the rich who are making money though international financial deals and trade. So strange for the nation that built the greatest global Empire ever known, and lost it in a historical blink of the eye. It now suffers from particularism and fear of the outside which may be its undoing.
God save the Queen, but also God save us from the British Tories, racists, and “Little Engenders.” In a time when more effort is needed from our “most close ally” we will likely be getting much less from looking at the debate here so far.
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