Britain's Place in the World

Pictured: Dr. Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House

Photo: Chatham House


Harry C. Blaney III

Date Line London

Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) hosted a major meeting June 23rd, led by speaker Dr. Robin Niblett the Director of Chatham House, on the topic “Britain’s Place in the World.” The topic would normally be rather expected and unremarkable, but in the present circumstances it is critical and relevant.

Without a doubt Britain is at odds with itself about the proper place of Britain in world affairs. It is battling between those who want the UK to have a major or prominent place in global and European affairs and those who wish to withdraw from Europe and even the world.  

Some even wish to disassociate from America. There are also elements that care not a wit about the rest of the world.  They mainly express that view by a hate of immigrants and those that do not look like them. This view is also expressed through voting for mostly the right wing Tories or the far right and racist United Kingdom Independent party known as UKIP.  They tend to blame Britain’s problems on the immigrants, on the EU. They sense a decline in influence which this group attributes to anyone but themselves and their bad policies.

This trend was exacerbated by the impact of the recession, austerity policies, and the indifference of the last Tory coalition to the poor. This new Conservative and now even more ideological government is making war on the poor and unemployed in Britain. There is generally a sense of total loss of humanity or caring for those most in need.

Some of this was covered in earlier posts from this series from London. The key words remain: despair, resignation, and a bit of uncertainty in a world still dominated by much conflict and known and unknown risks. The view, backed by polls, is the British public wants Britain to still have a global reach but do not want to pay the price for such a role. This is not surprising in either Britain or in America.

In the presentation and Q&As at Chatham House with Robin Niblett, he made the argument for continued focus on an “inner circle of Europe”, then with a wider circle including the NATO/Atlantic orbit, and the one beyond which would encompass not just the Commonwealth but much of the rest of the world including China. If this sounds like the old British world view, it is.  But this is with a bit of a downgrade to connections with the United States which is a growing view here among the far right and the far left and some between.

Niblett’s main aim in this address seemed to be to focus on the need to keep Britain in the EU given the threat of an exit in late 2016. The other aim was to argue the case for Britain being at the center of European decision making, while making money with a priority on global financial and commercial strategy especially with China as the new economic powerhouse.

Part of this is a bow to the economic power of China, but it seems to include overlooking China’s military ambitions and attacks on democracy in Hong Kong. The British government seem to be their old pragmatic selves, capitalist and global financial driven, only even more so now. But it appears they are increasingly indifferent to the global spread of ugliness, cruelty, conflict and real humanitarian action — even as British tourists were being killed in Tunisia.

Niblett observed ironically that America seemed to be “ambivalent” about its role in the world. I am not sure if this was directed towards Obama or the Republican opposition. From my perspective, the right wing GOP is not just “ambivalent” but hostile to real responsible engagement in the world’s challenges and is a destructive force that Obama has to deal with. No mention in this meeting was made of the many points of deep and difficult engagement that America under President Obama and Secretary John Kerry have shown in dealing with Russia under Putin, global warming, trying to find peace in the Middle East, the pivot to Asia, and our effort to address Iran’s nuclear programs. I might sadly add with little real help from London except mostly in words and not resources.

Niblett did little to suggest how Britain could do much more with America to solve the world’s problems other than words. He did hope that these issues could be solved, and pushed for the government to make them the priorities with America or anyone for that matter. He said that America was just one of many bilateral balances and relations for the UK. But many voices here that I heard and talked to are uneasy with this new “small England” stance and I assume even Niblett himself senses a deep unease at the trajectory of Britain and the world.

Here the newspapers are talking about cuts in foreign aid that once was vouched safe from such cuts by the Tories.  Niblett and other voices in these meetings deplored the cuts, but few here offered the idea of added taxes on the rich as one solution.  The right wing newspapers, which means almost all in the UK, seems more  interested in the government’s plans to cut business taxes and those for the very rich, than protecting the nation’s infrastructure, education, or national security or helping in any real sense deal with the world’s ills.

The idea that global strength comes from domestic growth in productivity, R&D investment, and in better education of the citizens was touched on, but more in terms of how much the rich sector of the society contributes than in the cost of inequality and unemployment. Low productivity was mentioned but not in the context of the government putting the average worker of this nation back into good jobs, since they seem in their policies only to punish those that can’t find jobs that actually produce goods, rather help those that slosh money around without benefit to the nation as a whole and slice money just to the very rich in the City. 

The key decisions that Britain faces in this critical time is the future of the well being of its less affluent majority and for more engagement in building a safer world.  Effective decisions are threatened by the Tories and their allies, of antipathy by many English for integration with Europe, and for that matter, with the world. Except, it seems, by some of the rich who are making money though international financial deals and trade. So strange for the nation that built the greatest global Empire ever known, and lost it in a historical blink of the eye. It now suffers from particularism and fear of the outside which may be its undoing.  

God save the Queen, but also God save us from the British Tories, racists, and “Little Engenders.” In a time when more effort is needed from our “most close ally” we will likely be getting much less from looking at the debate here so far. 

We welcome your comments! 


  1. Harry C. Blaney III July 1, 2015 / 8:47 PM

    Mr. Lamoree’s thoughts on the immigration issue (#2) is one, as I have noted on this blog, is shared by almost all of the European nations. There has been a long history of immigration into Europe and within Europe. The United States also has a long history of inward immigration which has not stopped and likely will continue. In American history there has been a reaction to new immigrants from countries not alredy very much represented. Ben Franklin even was critical of the “German” population of his time and we remember the signs “Irish need not apply.” But the simple fact is that both Europe and America benefit from such new “new blood” who have expanded our economies and our culture. Yes, we have a problem of accepting those that do not look like us or talk like us, but in time our diversity integrates and we now have a Black Irish President! Human nature can be both nasty and also kind and loving.

    On what to expect from the UK? (#3) First the UK is not a poor state, and having come just back from London, I can attest there are many very rich citizens and visitors with money — and wealth is in high profile and not hurting. They do not tax their rich very much these days especially in the high financial field. If they did they could do better by their unemployed, young, and poor and also make a better contribution to global needs and challenges.

    That gets to the almost final point (#4) The present Tory government is undertaking a massive tax “reform” to benefit the rich along with other policies to support the very very rich. The exception is on very expensive houses with increased taxes for mostly foreigners or as they say “non doms” with such houses in London. It will not hurt that much the 1% that mostly do not vote in any case and live abroad much of the time. Their main way of “balancing the budget” is off the back of the poor. That is simply a fact and one can go on line and check that in the London papers or read the policies of the government itself.

    As for the last paragraph, I signaled my support for the Queen who has done no harm to her nation but provided fair service to her people, while rightly naming those who have done much damage to the British nation’s citizens, spread hate, and at a cost to decency. I also recommend others to observe on the street of London the homeless and especially those in the North of the country and not least in their inner cities. I might have added we have some of the same problems here because of our Republican Congress that is doing or trying much the same here by cutting aid to the poor, education, infrastructure, health, and environmental protection. Should one mince words as the “least among us” are being devastated? These depredations matter for the world and its true security.

    Again many thanks for you comments which are indeed appreciated.

  2. Bob Lamoree July 1, 2015 / 12:34 PM


    1) The ‘Comment’ or ‘Leave a Reply’ is not what I would call user friendly.

    2) Is the U.K. the only country that has an immigrant issue? Not hardly. Will citizens (and immigrants) hate and fight and whatever over? Bet on it. It’s human nature, unfortunately.

    3) What do you expect of the U.K.? From your commentary you seem to expect more than it is capable of. Why are the U.K’s commitments changed? Could it be that they doing what they can afford to do?

    4) Risking understatement, inequality is a serious and growing problem. If your commentary is an accurate assessment, then the problem in the U.K. is a lot like our own . . . it’s being talked about, but nothing is being done.

    5) I think the last paragraph was a bit ‘heavy handed.’

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