Originally published at Project-Syndicate | September 12th, 2022
Since World War II, Britain’s influence in the world has relied on its “special relationship” with the United States, its position as head of the Commonwealth (the British Empire’s successor), and its position in Europe. The Americans are still there, but Europe isn’t, and now the head of the Commonwealth isn’t, either.
LONDON – Amid the many, and deserved, tributes to Queen Elizabeth II, one aspect of her 70-year reign remained in the background: her role as monarch of 15 realms, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. She was also the head of the Commonwealth, a grouping of 56 countries, mainly republics.
This community of independent states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire, has been crucial in conserving a “British connection” around the world in the post-imperial age. Whether this link is simply a historical reminiscence, whether it stands for something substantial in world affairs, and whether and for how long it can survive the Queen’s passing, have become matters of great interest, especially in light of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
In the nineteenth-century era of Pax Britannica, Britain exercised global power on its own. The sun never set on the British Empire: the British navy ruled the waves, British finance dominated world markets, and Britain maintained the European balance of power. This era of “splendid isolation” – never as splendid or isolated as history textbooks used to suggest – ended with World War I, which gravely wounded Britain’s status as a world power and correspondingly strengthened other claimants to that role.
As the results of WWI were confirmed by World War II, British foreign policy came to center on the doctrine of the “three circles.” Britain’s influence in the world would rely on its “special relationship” with the United States, its position as head of the Commonwealth (the empire’s successor), and its position in Europe. By its membership of these overlapping and mutually reinforcing circles, Britain might hope to maximize its hard and soft power and mitigate the effects of its military and economic “dwarfing.”
Different British governments attached different weights to the three roles in which Britain was cast. The most continuously important was the relationship with the US, which dates from WWII, when the Americans underwrote Britain’s military and economic survival. The lesson was never forgotten. Britain would be the faithful partner of the US in all its global enterprises; in return, Britain could draw on an American surplus of goodwill possessed by no other foreign country. For all the pragmatic sense it made, one cannot conceive of such a connection forged or enduring without a common language and a shared imperial history.
Imperial history was also central to the second circle. The British Empire of 1914 became the British Commonwealth in 1931, and finally just The Commonwealth, with the Queen as its titular head. Its influence lay in its global reach. Following the contours of the British Empire, it was the only world organization (apart from the United Nations and its agencies) which spanned every continent.
The Commonwealth conserved the British connection in two main ways. First, it functioned as an economic bloc through the imperial preference system of 1932 and the sterling area that was formalized in 1939, both of which survived into the 1970s. Second, and possibly more durably, its explicitly multiracial character, so ardently supported by the Queen, served to soften both global tensions arising from ethnic nationalism, and ethnic chauvinism in the “mother country.” Multicultural Britain is a logical expression of the old multicultural empire.
The European link was the weakest and was the first to snap. This was because Britain’s historic role in Europe was negative: to prevent things from happening there which might endanger its military security and economic livelihood. To this end, it opposed all attempts to create a continental power capable of bridging the Channel. Europe was just 20 miles away, and British policy needed to be ever watchful that nasty things did not happen “over there.”
John Maynard Keynes expressed this permanent sense of British estrangement from the Continent. “England still stands outside Europe,” he wrote in 1919. “Europe’s voiceless tremors do not reach her: Europe is apart and England is not of her flesh and body.” The Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, famously evoked this sense of separation when he played the Commonwealth card in 1962, urging his party not to abandon “a thousand years of history” by joining the European Economic Community.
Britain’s policy towards Europe has always been to prevent the emergence of a Third Force independent of US-led NATO. Charles de Gaulle saw this clearly, vetoing Britain’s first application to join the EEC in 1963 in order to prevent an American “Trojan Horse” in Europe.
Although Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted Britain to be at “the heart” of Europe, Britain pursued the same game inside the EU from 1974 until 2021. The only really European-minded prime minister in this period was Edward Heath. Otherwise, British governments have sought to maximize the benefits to Britain of trade and tourism, while minimizing the dangers of political contamination. Today, it is not surprising that Britain joins the US to project NATO power in Eastern Europe over the stricken torso of the EU itself.
So, Britain is left with just two circles. In the wake of Brexit, the Queen’s legacy is clear. Through her official position and personal qualities, she preserved the Commonwealth as a possible vehicle for projecting what remains of Britain’s hard power, such as military alliances in the South Pacific. And whatever one may think of Britain’s hard power, its soft power – reflecting its trading relationships, its cultural prestige in Asia and Africa, and its multicultural ideal – is a global public good in an age of growing ethnic, religious, and geopolitical conflict.
I doubt whether the two remaining circles can compensate for Britain’s absence from the third. The question that remains to be answered is how much the Commonwealth’s durability depended on the sheer longevity of the late monarch, and how much of it can be preserved by her successor.
Robert Skidelsky: A member of the British House of Lords and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University, was a non-executive director of the private Russian oil company PJSC Russneft from 2016 to 2021. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.