By: Dr Samir Puri
The end of its Empire was Britain’s last seismic rearrangement of its alignments and alliances. Today, Britain is slowly and painfully disentangling itself from the European Union. Of course, the two processes are incomparable in all but the most analogical, journalistic terms. Or are they?
“As I look out upon the future of our country in the changing scene of human destiny, I feel the existence of three great circles among the free nations and democracies”, said Winston Churchill in 1948. “The first circle for us is naturally the British Commonwealth and Empire… Then there is also the United States… And finally, there is United Europe.”
Britain’s defence and security has been underpinned by positioning itself at the centre of these three overlapping circles. Doing so has conferred to this Sceptred Isle a uniquely advantageous geopolitical position throughout the tumult of the Cold War and beyond.
While Britain has continued to provide a lynchpin between the USA, Europe and many parts of the wider world, what this means has changed a lot in the last 70 years. Britain’s relationship with the United States has experienced its peaks and troughs but has remained constant. Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1972 led to economic interdependence but stalled any notion of a common currency or political union. But it is the last of the three circles that merit attention here.
In anticipating Brexit’s unfolding, it is the end of Empire that is instructive. There is, as The Economist wrote, an art to leaving in evidence after decolonization, of “breaking up and staying friends”. The Empire was dismantled “as haphazardly as it began, with different territories gaining independence in different ways,” wrote Piers Brendon in The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997. The piecemeal manner of its dismantling is striking. Britain’s hold in the New World was diminished by the independence of the United States in 1776. A later iteration of Empire, with its focus on Asia, was eroded by World War Two. The wartime loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 presaged India’s independence five years later. The Suez Crisis of 1956 dealt a blow to British influence in the Middle East. There was, for a time, an aspiration to relocate the Empire’s centre of gravity to Africa, but these colonies became independent throughout the 1960s.
Today, it feels almost otherworldly to conjure up any sense of what the Empire meant. It can also seem immoral, given how out of step much of imperial ideology was in relation to contemporary norms. But to reflect on the defence and security implications of the breakup of the Empire is fruitful. The dismantling of a globe-spanning Empire that had existed in one form or another for centuries was transformative. There was a horrific amount of violence in some theatres of decolonization. But in others, relatively amicable arrangements were made, with security networks underpinning relations between Britain and these former colonies.
The transition from Empire to Commonwealth reminds us that a realignment does not necessarily mean severance. Brexit does not mean the end of Britain’s role in Europe. Rather, it reimagines a relationship that will not suddenly vanish, no matter the dramas of the rupture yet to come.
In a RAND Europe report on ‘Defence and security after Brexit’, the authors observe that “the decision to leave the EU arguably looks likely to have minimal impact on Britain’s conventional defence apparatus in the near term”. In other words, the upheaval for Britain’s military will be moderated by the fact that the EU has never offered a major platform for cooperative military action, and because NATO will remain Britain’s preeminent multilateral military ‘club’. But, RAND opines, “Brexit may pose more immediate practical challenges for security than defence.”
Security, rather than defence, is indeed where Brexit’s impacts will be intricate. The transnational nature of criminality and terrorism and the security implications arising from huge migration flows are for Britain inherently European-facing issues. The Brexit in-tray of UK-EU cooperative policing arrangements is considerable. Policing, serious crime investigations and intelligence work simply cannot be done in the vacuum of a nation-state, given the informational revolution and the relative ease and speed of international travel. The myriad of treaties to be renegotiated will make Brexit akin to uprooting a tree that has had several decades to lay its roots.
The biggest imperial connotation of all, however, is the mindset that led to Brexit in the first place. The essence of British exceptionalism has its roots in the fact that Britain was for so long a globe-straddling superpower. It is perilously hard to argue about the often subconscious impact of the Empire on current British foreign and security policy thinking. Generationally, the impact of the Empire is now much less direct than before. However, a grandiose sense of destiny and purpose – which need not be negative qualities if harnessed in the name of order – still pervade Britain’s sense of global identity.
All national histories are exercises in selective amnesia. The myths that parts of Britain hold of itself – as a plucky nation able to survive on its own wits – are part of the Brexit story. And they spring from the defensive conundrums of bygone ages. Even in its darkest days, such as after the fall of France in 1940, Britain was able to stand alone and survive a horrific onslaught, while Churchill began ensuring Britain’s survival and longevity as a global player through a realignment with the USA. David Reynolds has called 1940 “the Fulcrum of the twentieth century”. It is not difficult to see why the fall of France began a turn towards the Atlantic – and why this still matters today. The release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk has almost too much significance to bear.
The Empire and the wars that were fought in its name are essential components of Britain’s sense of global identity. History tells the story that explains Britain’s geopolitical positioning today. Looking historically, and thinking self-reflectively, will be the only way to navigate the humbling that Brexit is sure to spell in relation to British influence in Europe. To imperil British security during the coming realignment is a fate that must be avoided.
Dr Samir Puri is a Lecturer in War Studies where he teaches the MA module on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism. He is also serving as a strategy adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat in the establishment of its Countering Violent Extremism unit. Before joining King’s, Dr Puri worked for the Foreign Office (2009-2015) and for RAND (2006-2009). In 2016 his book, ‘Fighting and Negotiating with Armed Groups’, was released by the IISS; and he has extended this analysis to the war in Syria for the Telegraph and Observer newspapers.
This Strife series focuses on British Security Post-Brexit and will have contributions by Dr Samir Puri; Felix Manig on the security implications of post-Brexit asylum laws; Christina on the UK-USA relationship; and Alfonc Rakaj on British defence commitments.