Notes From the Margins…

Gavin Williamson: Brexitland Rules the Waves

  • January 06, 2019
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In the final pages of the Beagle diaries, Charles Darwin celebrated the incorporation of Australia and other British colonies into ‘ a grand centre of civilization’ and declared approvingly:

It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction.  To hoist the British flag seems to draw as a certain consequence wealth, prosperity and civilisation.

Darwin made these observations at a time when the British navy was seen by many Victorian Englishmen as the guarantor of civilization as well as British commercial interests.  Long after our slow ‘retreat from Empire’ this association between global military power and ‘greatness’ has been crucial to the way that Britain imagines itself.

More than any other  European country, the British ruling classes have consistently sought to project military power abroad even after the UK’s  ‘retreat from empire’,  and we have never ceased to look back with yearning and fondness towards on the global reach that Darwin described.   This nostalgia has re-emerged with a vengeance as a result of the ‘Empire Redux’ fantasies that have followed the referendum.

Last week our fireplace salesman-turned-defence secretary Gavin Williamson told the Sunday Telegraph that leaving the EU offered Britain the chance to become a ‘global player’ by establishing a chain of military bases around the world.

Interviewed in his office with a picture of Churchill on the wall behind him, Williamson delivered stirring words that were guaranteed to warm the hearts of many Torygraph readers:

We have got to be so much more optimistic about our future as we exit the European Union.  This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.

Speaking in the same week that Jeremy Hunt was touting for a new post-Brexit role by summoning the ghost of George Canning in Singapore,  Williamson promised to end the 1968 ‘East of Suez’ policy and  ‘ get as much of our resources forward-based, actually creating a deterrent, but also taking a British presence’ in the  Commonwealth and countries ‘right across Africa’.

All these regions apparently ‘look to us for the moral leadership, the military leadership, and the global leadership.’  Williamson didn’t say exactly where these bases will be established, but the Telegraph suggested potential locations in the Singapore, Montserrat, and Guyana.

What will these military bases deter, in Montserrat or Guyana, say?  For Williamson, the presence of these bases is more important than their actual purpose.  The important thing is to be out there and show the world that we are ‘global’ and therefore ‘great’ again.  That’s what being optimistic is all about.

Never mind that recruitment to the British army has fallen to the point when the armed forces are now appealing directly to ‘snowflakes’ in a bizarre attempt to attract millennials into the army.

Williamson cited recent research carried out by Lord Ashcroft which supposedly showed that while ‘the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when actually we stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the 10.’

I’m not quite sure what this means, and I doubt if Williamson is either.   Even by the dismal standards of this-government-of-the-damned, the man who once told Russia to ‘go away’ has been promoted way above his station.   Williamson is essentially promoting an Airfix toy version of British power that has very little relevance or practical application in the 21st century.

Many countries have associated military power with ‘greatness’, and most of them have ultimately come to grief in the end.

For Williamson, like so many Brexiters, ‘optimism’ and fantasies of global reach have now taken the place of any realistic assessment of who we are and what we might become.

Unlike Darwin’s time, we no longer inhabit a world in which British gunboats uphold the international world order and enforce free trade for the benefit of British manufacturing.  We are a medium-sized power and something of a minnow.

There is little evidence to suggest that the world is crying out for our ‘leadership’ – especially after the tormented farce of the last 2.5 years.

Our inability to recognize this transformation is a problem, and not only because Williamson’s ‘forward resources’ cost a great deal of money that could be more usefully spent on repairing the torn social fabric of a country where many homeless people are veterans from our recent attempts to show the world how great we are.

These fantasies of ‘Global Britain’ and ‘ Empire 2.0’  are part of the reason we have ended up in this horrific mess in the first place.

And the great irony, which I’m sure the historians of the future will not miss, is that these foolish attempts to become ‘great’ again  – coupled with an inability to honestly come to terms with our imperial past – are likely to lead to our national ruin and the breakup of the UK.

No military bases in Montserrat, Guyana or the South China Seas will make up for that, and the politicians who waved this process through are likely to look even dumber and more out of their depth than they do already.[amazon_link asins=’1789540984′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’mattc55-20′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’e4b29fe5-119d-11e9-a748-31cb727c9eb4′]

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  1. Mike Speirs

    6th Jan 2019 - 4:16 pm

    Hi Matt,
    Glad to see you’re blogging again and covering topical issues as always! Brexit seems to be a bizarre revival of nostalgic rubbish about the greatness of empire and the horrors of euro-centralism, messed up by a so-called government dominated by what the Economist has recently called “the chumocracy” of old boys networks. Like millions of others my mind boggles in disbelief… Ciao, Mike

  2. Nigel Baldwin

    10th Jan 2019 - 6:03 am

    My award for quote of the 21st Century (so far) goes to the Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen, who stated that: “There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations.”

    There was an almighty row between Copenhagen and London, but there’s no denying that he’s right.

    • Matt

      11th Jan 2019 - 8:54 am

      I love that quote. It should be the Brexit epitaph really.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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