In a press briefing at the UN many years ago Douglas Hurd pointed out that British foreign policy was “the same as it has been since the days of Pitt the Younger,” to ensure that “no combination of powers in Europe would be in a position to threaten us.” This was in the now forgotten context of Margaret Thatcher fighting the Germans. That was of course before successive British governments chose to adopt German-style anally retentive austerity policies.
It puts the “Special Relationship” in a different light, since American commentary has concentrated on how Brexit threatens Britain’s role as Washington’s standing fifth column in the EU. It is a role we should happily forfeit. Poodles are cosseted creatures, but as Tony Blair discovered over Iraq, it’s not always wise to jump yapping after every stick the master throws.
Ironically, Israeli commentators also lament the potential loss of a post-Brexit Britain’s role in shielding settlements from EU sanctions, which shows how things have changed. In the robust days before Blair sacked Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, British policy did indeed have an ethical dimension that included condemning Israeli breaches of international law even when it upset the Americans.
So, if what’s left of the UK after Brexit is freed from its obligations to carry out the garbage for the US and Israel, how does it affect Britain’s role at the UN? Interestingly, when Boris Yeltsin did to the Soviet Union what Boris Johnson now seems to have done to the EU, there was no formal decision that Russia would take over USSR’s permanent seat. Sir David Hannay, Britain’s permanent representative quipped that the Russian Ambassador slipped into the Council Chamber at midnight and changed the name plate while everyone else was celebrating the New Year.
It was clear that Russia, which inherited the Soviet nukes, was the successor state and its stature ensured its permanent membership status so there were supercilious sniggers, but no challenges. But could a dis-United Kingdom take that for granted? Until now, not only has the UK benefitted from occasional US gratitude and indulgence on the Council, it has, like France, also usually been able to speak for the European Union, which gives its word considerably more clout than Britain alone, let alone Britain as ventriloquist dummy for Washington.
In fact, that is unfair, since the British Foreign Office has often been far more articulate and astute than the US delegation, whose State Department professionals are often over-ridden by politicians owing their knowledge of foreign affairs to whatever was written on the back of the lobbyists’ cheques. Many of the crucial Iraq resolutions were only made possible with British diplomatic expertise and draftsmanship until, of course, Tony Blair wanted a war whether his foreign office did or not, with or without a UN resolution.
In those earlier days, British representatives paid heed to international law and the effect of its decisions but their standards seem to be slipping. British silence as Ban Ki Moon was recently undermined by French support for Morocco flouting of UN decisions on Western Sahara or Saudi attempts to edit human rights reports, suggests that London is now prepared to see the UN fail rather than express inexpedient principle.
On balance, there is unlikely to be a direct challenge to Britain’s permanent council seat. It has been suggested that Britain and France’s permanent seats be replaced by an EU seat – but that is even more questionable now than before. In any case an EU seat would be useless. Consensus of all its members is almost impossible and instead of a veto, an EU seat on the Council would have a perpetual abstention.
So probably even a truncated UK could stay on the Council. However, it is gradually shrinking towards Taiwan’s position where its nominal veto power is not supported by the real world. Indeed, if Brexit happens, the rump UK influence will be overshadowed by a France that represents the EU and does not have the shadow of an American puppet master looming over it.
So what role could the UK have? Briefly under Robin Cook, as I remember, Britain’s UN mission remembered that Commonwealth thing, and invited their representatives to a Commonwealth reception. But in fact it was the New Zealanders, Canadians and Australians, before they went Blairite and Thatcherite, who seemed to take the relationship more seriously. In fact, if it were not for the complacency that a permanent seat engenders, it would make good sense to cultivate the Commonwealth missions, many of whom are small, understaffed and underappreciated and British advice could be well received if tendered in the proper spirits. And then Robin Cook had that thing about an ethical dimension for foreign policy. It’s time to redouble our support for international law, untrammeled by inconvenient alliances.