“Fog in Channel, Continent isolated” is one of the better remembered British newspaper front page headlines, but as the new Coalition Government here in London takes its swingeing axe to the public services, it may be time to reflect just how isolated Britain is becoming – not only from Europe, but from the United States.
This weekend sees a visit by French President Sarkozy to this sceptred Isle. For once the media is not replete with predictable snarkiness directed towards the French. Sarkozy’s visit marks the seventieth anniversary of the exiled General Charles De Gaulle’s first broadcasts from London to his fellow countrymen, urging citizens to resist the German occupiers. Since this was Winston Churchill’s idea, and since De Gaulle had been given a British berth, this is largely seen through the traditional rose tinted spectacles that the British media immediately don when mention is made of the Second World War.
But once Sarkozy and his entourage depart, it will be back to business as usual, or one may ask, what business? General Charles De Gaulle may have famously repaid his British hosts by blocking this country’s early application to join the then Common Market, but then there was never much enthusiasm here for anything too Continental in any event. Britain has, for decades, been a foot dragging, reluctant member of a European club, to begin with because it remained attached to the Commonwealth and latterly because its political leadership believed in something called the ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States.
But the Commonwealth was never going to be a substitute for the benefits that flowed from Imperial preference when Britain had an Empire. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian sub Continent and South Africa, for all our historical ties, did not have the same market potential offered by Europe. And as for the Special Relationship – well something has been clearly hard wired into generations of British politicians that never existed. In the early years of the last century, the US still feared conflict with Britain, and dedicated its defence policy accordingly. And when it came to the Second World War, when Britain for a while truly did stand alone against Hitler’s might, the United States extracted many of Britain’s riches, including numerous strategic bases, in return for something called the ‘lend lease scheme’, whereby a flow of armaments was taken across the Atlantic to help the besieged Brits. Oh, and America not only had no intention of joining the battle against Hitler, but only decided to throw its might against the Axis Powers after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Neither did Britain benefit from the Marshall Plan. Now, watching President Obama laying into "British Petroleum", simply reinforces the point. In truth, if the United States does have a ‘Special Relationship’, it is not with Britain, but with Israel.
And when it comes to the European Union, the British have given every impression of not really wanting to play ball. No British party is prepared to offer a pro European prospectus, apart from marginally, the Liberal Democrats. Most significantly of all, Britain did not join the Euro zone, something I happened to agree with at the time, not least because a ‘one size fits all’ currency that brought together the Deutschmark and the Drachma, could well end in tears. However, whatever the problems of the Euro zone now, there is no question that it will be allowed to fail. Germany, France and the Benelux countries will see to that.
Which all leaves Britain, battening down for the massive economic contraction that will follow from the Cameron/Clegg cuts looking, well, rather isolated. But neither proud nor indomitable, instead a rather confused, disorientated unhappy country that still knows something of its past, but is increasingly nervous about its future.