'Global Britain'and the GREAT RETREAT
Musa Okwonga makes the case that Boris Johnson’s relative silence on the US’ assassination of Qasem Soleimani is a sign of things to come for a more isolationist, inward-looking Britain.
When the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s low-key and hugely influential military strategist, there was a great deal of fury at the long silence of Boris Johnson.
The anger was understandable. This killing, sanctioned with glee by President Donald Trump, was regarded by many as a huge geopolitical event – but perhaps there should not have been so much surprise at Johnson’s lack of an immediate response.
When Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor as Prime Minister, spoke of a “Global Britain”, the phrase implied a departure from the EU so that an unhindered Britain could set sail onto the international stage. That voyage, it now seems, apparently does not involve a more vocal and calming presence in the sphere of foreign policy.
Given Johnson’s previous offerings on Iran – specifically, his failure to protect a British citizen charged with espionage – some might suggest that it is better that he keeps his mouth shut. It may lead others to wonder if his reluctance to comment is part of a wider strategy which, though inelegant, may yet prove effective.
The result of the 2019 General Election, a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, suggests that voters care little for Johnson’s neglect of several democratic norms. His refusal to schedule an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, for instance, barely had an impact on the momentum of his campaign.
Perhaps Johnson and those around him have interpreted his success as a mandate to retreat further from major diplomacy; to regard each new surge of turmoil overseas, in the words of a previous British Prime Minister, as a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”.
The World at Arm’s Length
A visit to the UK this Christmas gave me a hint as to what “Global Britain” actually means.
It was striking to see that the Transport for London rail network has now been extended far past the city’s outskirts, all the way to Reading. It seems that, for both symbolic and economic purposes, the entire Thames Valley is now a London suburb.
It was equally interesting to see the huge and continued investment in Slough from the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which has made the wise calculation that building properties directly next to the planned high-speed rail links will give them spectacular yields.
One afternoon, sitting and discussing Brexit with two affluent property developers – one who had voted Remain, the other who had voted Leave – it became ever more clear that the country was set to become an insular, deregulated, winner-takes-all society, lorded over by those who own multiple units of housing at the expense of almost everyone else.
As they discussed the financial gains that they anticipated making, it seemed that Global Britain truly meant Global London; a project in which money from all-comers could now be pumped with even greater vigour into the capital, and where the affluent are making such vast sums of cash that they can afford to be oblivious or at least reticent to the international scene.
If we increasingly think of Boris Johnson’s Britain as Switzerland-upon-Sea, then his silence on Iran – only recently broken by a joint statement with other EU leaders – seems to make greater sense. It is not that these matters are of no concern to him. It is just that they may be a far less urgent priority than before.
“The funny thing with us Leavers”, remarked one of the property developers, “is that we love the Continent”. It was just, he explained, that he preferred to keep it at arm’s length. Perhaps Boris Johnson’s Government, when it comes to politics, prefers to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length too; their money is welcome, but their arguments are not.
Isolationism appears to be what the country voted for, and this Great Retreat is something for which the British Prime Minister could well have a keen instinct. We can see it in his recent pronouncement, since hastily retracted, that he wished to abolish the country’s foreign aid department. This reform, said Johnson, would help Global Britain to achieve its “full and massive potential”.
In an age where the world – especially in the area of climate change – needs far more collaboration across borders not less, Britain is arguably sailing in the opposite direction. Time will tell how this all plays out, but the next time that the international community comes calling, it should probably not be shocked if it finds Britain on a beach with its feet up.