Humble Britain : Should It Be?

May 16, 2011, 1:25 AM UTC

What pose should Britain strike in the modern world? Should it be that of the self-confident, powerful, ancient nation that once ruled the world and still expects everyone else to sit up and take notice of it? Or should it be more humble, adopting the attitude of a country at last reconciled to the loss of its empire and acknowledging that it is now just a small-to-medium-sized European nation in a world about to be dominated by Asian giants?

These questions have arisen with David Cameron’s first major foray into foreign affairs since becoming prime minister nearly three months ago. This week he has been in Turkey and India; last week he was in the United States. On the face of it, he appears to have given a clear answer to them.

Writing in an Indian paper before flying off east, the Prime Minister said he was coming to their country “in a spirit of humility”. And in Washington he said that, at least since the 1940s, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States had been very much that of the ‘junior partner’.

These remarks have been interpreted as implying that Mr Cameron believes not only that Britain should take a more modest view of its status and role in the world but also that its new leader needs publicly to declare as much. Britain needs taking down a peg or two and its Prime Minister is just the man to do it.

This has not gone down well, especially among the right wing of his party. In their view it is the role of a prime minister to talk his country up not down. Talk of humility is far too close to woolly, liberal, leftish notions of needing to apologise for the British empire. There’s nothing to apologise for: the empire was good for the world and India was not the least of its beneficiaries. Furthermore, it’s absurd for Britain to be humble since it still has very considerable assets. It remains one of the biggest economies; it has a permanent seat on the UN security council; and it is still a major military power. Britain should be self-confident and proud and a British Prime Minister should be unashamed to say so.

Objection to Mr Cameron’s stance goes beyond this interpretation of his words. His actions are regarded as equally bad. In response to Indian objections to the government’s proposed cap on immigrants, the Prime Minister has said he is happy to consult the Indian government before taking a final decision. But, say his critics, it is for Britain and Britain alone to decide such issues.

Defenders of the Prime Minister say these attacks are based on a simple misreading of his remarks. He is not remotely trying to downplay, let alone apologise for Britain’s past role in world history, of which he is as proud as anyone. Nor is he saying that Britain should not fully exploit, in its own interests, the considerable strengths it still has. As for a cap on immigration, that will still be imposed but what can be wrong in discussing the details of it with the Indian government first?

The correct interpretation of Mr Cameron’s remarks, they argue, is that Britain needs to take a realistic view of its power and its role in the world and then behave self-confidently in accordance with it. The humility is in relation to reality. That means being relaxed about the self-evident fact that the United States is the greater power and that our relations with India have undergone a major change. As he put it in his article: “I know that Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India’s future. Your country has the whole world beating a path to its door.” That’s not grovelling, it’s realism.

This spat may or may not derive from a simple misunderstanding of the Prime Minister’s remarks. But some commentators say there is a much more obvious point to make about them. In their eyes there is a glaring contradiction between Mr Cameron’s talk of ‘humility’ and his own behaviour in the international arena. Far from being humble, he has been forthright, outspoken, even offensive in some of the things he has had to say on Britain’s behalf regarding highly sensitive issues.

In Turkey he may have delighted his hosts by expressing ‘anger’ at the endless blocking of Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union, but such a remark, with the clear implication that it has been indefensible for France and Germany to do the blocking, will not have seemed especially humble in Paris and Berlin.

Similarly, although the Turkish government applauded the Prime Minister for appearing to vindicate its approach to the Palestinian issue by describing Gaza as a ‘prison camp’, the phrase caused huge offence to the Israelis.

And in India, Mr Cameron’s comment that it is unacceptable for Pakistan to ‘look both ways’ on terrorism – to be both the ally of the west against terrorism while also seeming to give backing to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to anti-Indian insurgents in Kashmir, as India has long alleged – went down very well in Delhi but outraged Islamabad.

Far from taking a humble approach, Mr Cameron’s venture into diplomacy was described by one commentator as being that of someone “with both boots flying”.

This apparent contradiction leaves open the question of what the Prime Minister’s foreign policy will really turn out to be like. Will it indeed be conducted in a ‘spirit of humility’ or will there be a swagger, a readiness to put the boots back on and tread roughshod over diplomatic sensibilities? Some cynics will remember that before he was elected, George W. Bush promised a ‘humble’ foreign policy; few would use the term to describe the policy he actually carried out.

But what should characterise British foreign policy? Those who like the sound of ‘humble Britain’ say the idea comes not a moment too soon. For too long Britain has tried, in Douglas Hurd’s phrase, to 'punch above our weight'. The result has been what they regard as the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, adventures which we could not afford and in which we have been militarily humbled. Britain should just get used to the fact that we are not the power we were and can never be so again. A country with an ageing population of around sixty million cannot be anything other than at least modest, if not actually humble, in a world racing towards a population of nine billion and with an average age in the twenties and falling.

On the other hand, those alarmed by talk of British humility argue that we are still one of the six biggest economies; we still have world assets to defend; we are still a force for good in a difficult world; and punching above our weight is in everyone’s interests. It’s one thing, they argue, to advocate that India should have a permanent seat on the security council but quite another for Britain, in a fit of humility about its relative reduced power, to surrender its own seat, perhaps exchanging it, say, for part-share in an EU seat. But doesn’t talk of ‘humility’ lead inexorably in that direction?

What’s your view? Do you think David Cameron was right to talk of having a “spirit of humility” in his approach? Do you think this remark, and his describing Britain as the “junior partner” of the United States implies a shift to a more humble approach to foreign policy or not? Is he right or not to discuss his plans for a cap on immigration with the Indian government? What do you make in themselves of his remarks about Turkey’s attempts to join the EU, Gaza as a “prison camp” and Pakistan “looking both ways” on terrorism? Do you think they contradict or not a ‘humble’ approach to foreign policy? And how do you think Britain should play its role in the world?