UK overseas coverage has lengthy been formed by a selected geopolitical method of conceiving the nation’s place on the earth. This island identification could have been cast in imperial instances, but it surely stays vastly related within the post-Brexit world.
In order to elucidate and justify its colossal empire – the most important the world has ever seen – imperial thinkers and politicians depicted the UK as a exceptional little island that was not solely able to operating such an enormous operation, however was positively made for the position.
Its advantageous location within the North Atlantic, near Europe however not entangled with it, gave it an eagle eye on world affairs. What’s extra, the oceanic area that Britain inhabited meant that it was a essentially extra cellular polity than different landlocked states. In the imperial creativeness, Calcutta was as shut as Calais, Darwin as close to as Dublin.
In my ebook Geopolitics and Identity in British Foreign Policy Discourse: the Island Race, I clarify how these habits of thoughts have remained essential for UK politicians, even because the empire dwindled. To be an island was to be democratic, sovereign, freedom-loving, cellular and a bastion of limitless and world free commerce.
Your sovereign neighbour
After the then French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed British membership of the European Economic Community in 1963, the House of Commons was defiant: the UK had a vibrant sufficient future separate from the continent. Even Edward Heath, the prime minister who ultimately led the UK into the European Community, informed the Conservative convention in 1973 that “we’re an island race”.
The Falklands Conflict offered ample alternative for Margaret Thatcher to restate a strong island identification that she felt was turning into misplaced. Tony Blair didn’t simply embrace globalisation as a post-cold struggle explanatory idea, he depicted a UK that was ideally suited to this new area of distanceless flows and networks.
These impulses to outline the UK as a sovereign, cellular, freedom-loving island helped politicians to navigate the large modifications that occurred since 1945. It ought to subsequently come as little shock that they’ve remained potent on this Brexit period.
Certainly, David Cameron’s starting-gun speech in 2013 stays a startling doc, not least for his prolonged exposition of how deeply the UK being an island has formed its historical past and psychology.
Never greater than lukewarm about Brexit, “Global Britain” was Theresa May’s try to call the UK’s posture after leaving the EU. It means that the one two selections for the UK’s overseas coverage are: Europe or the entire vast world. Indeed, these have been the contours of many Sixties debates on European integration.
For Global Britain to operate as an idea, it depends on notions of British attain and mobility that hearken again to its maritime imperial heyday relatively than precisely describing its current scenario. The traditionally inclined Boris Johnson embraced the idea. But in some ways, Global Britain will not be concerning the current a lot because the previous and the longer term.
Nostalgic politicians (often Conservative) may summon the exceptional little island and its empire; free-trade Brexiteers may level to bountiful futures of commerce agreements. Both teams may level to histories of and aspirations in direction of being buccaneers of free commerce, nimbly spanning the oceans to deliver prosperity and democracy to the world. For Global Britain fanatics, the world stays an area with out distance, prepared for maritime exploitation.
This additionally informs the newer “Indo-Pacific tilt”, by which the UK appears to be like to grow to be a strategic participant within the huge and different area spanning each Indian and Pacific Oceans. How a lot clout the UK truly has right here is very debatable, however the Aukus pact, the brand new defence settlement with Japan and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership a minimum of demonstrates ambition.
What is an island within the twenty first century?
As the UK appears to be like to outline a brand new place and position for itself on the earth outdoors of the EU, it’s falling again on time-honoured notions of island identification. Yet there’s far much less unity about what it means to be an island on this fractious twenty first century than there was through the imperial period.
The debates about tips on how to enact Brexit have been marked by profound disagreements over whether or not the UK’s comparatively small measurement is advantageous or the other; whether or not the UK, as an offshore island, ought to have interaction intently with the remainder of Europe or disconnect; and whether or not and the way a lot the UK may look to be embraced by the remainder of the world, particularly its “kith and kin” of the Commonwealth.
Although the prospect of Scottish independence appears to be like to have receded since its Nicola Sturgeon-era excessive watermark, the SNP’s strident articulations of Scotland as a European, Celtic and even quasi-Scandinavian nation represents a elementary problem to the usually unifying idea of British islandness. This is to say nothing of Northern Ireland.
Many historians have argued that the empire offered the glue between the constituent components of the UK. Without the empire or the EU, are we now seeing the true nature of a disunited Kingdom? Perhaps Britishness is only a fig leaf for English nationalism. This would definitely clarify the renewed significance of island identification to unionist politicians as they search to outline not simply the UK’s place on the earth, however its very future as a union.
Nick Whittaker ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de components, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer revenue de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son organisme de recherche.