What exactly is Britain's role in the world?

5 Feb 2013

Our island nation is steeped in history. The empire which once existed over such a wide area of the world’s geography came to a shuddering halt in the late 20th Century and gradually declined thereafter. Britain was known as being the country which conquered and ruled, a country feared by so many others. When the gradual decline started to happen, and when countries once under our reign decided to separate, Britain was going through a transition from powerful to powerless. What should have happened, was we should had found a way to consolidate the economic power we once had, but instead when countries like India declared independence in 1947 and more power struggles occurred during the next few decades, it spelt the end. Britain left out in the cold, a speck, a shadow of its former self. Which leaves the question, what exactly is our role in the world now?


The global economy is struggling and the European crisis is in stalemate. Germany seems to be building the Eurozone around them by bailing out all the weaker economies as debts rise and economies falter. It was only a few years ago that Merkel and Sarkozy were talking of a ‘united’ Europe. The Problem with Germany leading the helm on this is that, as far as ‘modern’ history goes, the two world wars which battered the world in the first half decade of the 20th Century are still in our cultural memories, leading to similar economic comparisons being suggested by some in recent years. Britain, in the ‘good’ years could assert authority, and they would be listened to, but now – no. Britain isn’t a strong economic voice anymore.

Britain helped lead the support of the revolution in the Middle East, most notably in Libya in 2011. Mr Cameron promoted democracy and why Gaddafi and dictators are bad for governance when the infliction of violence on your own people has been going on for so many years. But, look away from the likes of Libya when Cameron seems a great promoter of democracy, look at the UK, the main political parties are facing a huge crisis. 2010 marked the end of the Labour spell of power which went from strength to strength until the prudency of Labour economics was blighted by the credit crunch. The Conservatives were the most popular party – gaining votes and seats which they lost under Major in 1997. But 306 MP’s was not enough to gain a majority government. We then witnessed the birth of the first coalition government in the UK since the Second World War.

Now, marking the mid-term of the Parliament, the time when a single party government usually starts to struggle, it isn’t any easier for the Coalition, with disagreements on vital issues within the Conservative Party, Clegg’s leadership of the Lib Dems looking uncertain and the future of the yellow side of the agreement looking bleak in general. Furthermore, usually, a weak government is welcomed by a strong opposition who capitalise on the governments flaws; unfortunately this isn’t the case in 2013. This mid-term shows a weak lead by Miliband in the polls even with Cameron's posturing over Europe. With all three main parties having their flaws and confidence falling quicker than unemployment, people have resorted to the smaller parties. UKIP have gained a great deal of support with a strong leader and there will be rumours of a potential coalition with Labour in 2015 if Miliband doesn’t wake up and smell the British coffee. Simply put, Britain doesn’t have a strong political voice anymore.

So, what is Britain doing to correct this? Well, to quote the amazing (and surprisingly realistic) sitcom, ‘Yes Minister’ – “They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement." And this is what we have done. We can’t achieve great things economically because we are in Europe and economies of scale dictate the limitations of our growth. We aren’t as strong politically because a huge confidence crisis is emerging. So the government has decided to be active on something they can look remotely strong about on the global front.

What is this activity? Intervention. Since 2010, Cameron has shown a diplomatic eye in order to play a Good Samaritan role with fellow ‘allies’ in times of need. We sent troops and resources into Libya, and since, we have silently, but up to this point ineffectively, acted on Syria and now Mali. Yes, it is good that we can help those in need, but intervening in countries which have no link to us is an appalling waste of public money.

Atrocities in Libya and Syria and terrorist attacks in Mali are wrong and we have condemned them diplomatically, but sending troops, resources and tangible support in large numbers isn’t the right way forward. We can’t police the world. We don’t have the resources to do these things. And it is unfair and unjust that in times where every pound of public money in the UK is being scrutinised, we look to intervene in more or less every country in crisis, when services in the UK like welfare, policing, health and defence are losing out.

It is right that the international community can discuss action on issues like Syria but it has been said in the past, that a global response is needed. Britain can’t solve all the problems in the world and the primary problem Britain needs to solve is the UK economy. We need to focus on issues here – charity starts at home. For example, the Equal Marriage Bill is going before debate and vote in the House of Commons today, this has been one of Cameron’s leading issues since entering government. But, now doubts are growing from Conservatives from around the country about the plan. This leaves the Party split. So where is their leader to offer decisive leadership on the issue? In Chequers, trying to bring peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

We can’t go on like this. Policing the world is not up to Britain. The concern of Britain should be getting the economy back on track- creating new jobs, getting more trade deals, building a Britain which is open for business and delivering economic growth. Intervening in Libya, Mali etc. isn’t going to help. The Government may feel better for helping, but the unfortunate reality is we have people in this country who are in need- and we must help those before helping others abroad. People are starving in the UK. Money is tight in the UK. We cannot afford to live beyond our means. Intervening seems like we are trying to rekindle our former empire and ‘paternal’ influence across the globe, but times have changed and the time has come for Britain to put Britain first.

By Sam Kenward

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