Notes From the Margins…

Jeremy Hunt’s Chain of Fools

  • January 04, 2019
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As a schoolboy studying for my History O’Level, I once memorized the British Foreign Secretary George Canning’s famous 1826 dictum: ‘I called the New World into existence  to redress the balance of the Old.’

At the time I was never exactly sure what it meant, but I understood that it had something to do with the ‘informal empire’ that Britain established in Latin America after the Napoleonic Wars.  I was nevertheless impressed by the grandiosity of a statesman who could ‘call’ new worlds into existence, and I sensed that our history teacher expected us to be impressed too.

In October last year our current foreign secretary referenced Canning in a speech on the UK’s role in a post-Brexit world.  Brexiters like history, even though they tend to look back on it through a very narrow lens, and Jeremy Hunt’s speech was one of the silliest speeches I have ever heard since this dismal process began.

Hunt’s basic premise was that the UK finds itself, as it once did after the Napoleonic Wars, at a similarly ‘pivotal, historic moment’ in which ‘ the global balance of power is shifting once more and Post-Brexit, our place within it as well.’  In response to these developments, Hunt suggested that a post-Brexit UK ‘ can use our influence, our reach and power to defend our values by becoming an invisible chain that links the world’s democracies’.

Hunt referred vaguely to ongoing threats to global democracy, free trade and multilateralism, and argued that the UK and its ‘friends’ should unite behind their common ‘values’ and promote the ‘separation of powers, respect for individual civil and political rights, a belief in free trade’ through a combination of hard and soft power.

The new world that Hunt proposed to ‘call into existence’  was somewhat less ambitious than the Latin American markets that Canning once set out to prise open for Britain’s burgeoning manufacturing industries.  Hunt announced his intention to establish 12 new diplomatic posts.  The first six were to be established in Lesotho, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), the Bahamas, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu.

He also proposed to upgrade the British Office in Chad, set up new embassies will be founded in Djibouti and Niger, and boasted that he now had added Germany, France and Japan to the Foreign Office’s secure phone lines.

Canning, eat your heart out.

On Wednesday, Hunt returned to the same theme in another speech on Britain’s ‘post-Brexit role’ delivered in the Brexiter Shangri-La of Singapore.  After extolling the virtues of Singapore, he once again warned of threats to ‘the rules-based international system’ from a variety of sources that included Syria, Russia, and Iran in Yemen (no mention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen – it’s all Iran’s fault).

Apparently unaware that he was giving his speech in an authoritarian democracy that has been ruled by the same party for more than half a century, Hunt warned of a global retreat from democratic governance, in a world ‘ where it is rarely possible for one country to achieve its ambitions alone’ .

Hunt insisted that the UK was uniquely posed to negotiate these challenges , through a network of connections that included ‘the Commonwealth, our alliance with the United States or our friendship with our neighbours in Europe.’

And those connections are why Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world, those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies.

That doesn’t mean being dogmatic or forcing our values on others. And of course we recognise that every country is different.

But it does mean speaking out for those fundamental principles to our friends, as well as those who set themselves up in opposition to them.

It means being active where we have special responsibilities, such as securing peace in Yemen.

There is a lot of nonsense here, not least of which is Hunt’s suggestion that the UK is ‘securing peace’ in the Yemen war.  Perhaps you can’t expect much more from a politician who has shown a keen eye for self-advancement and deference to the powerful in every post he has ever held, but Hunt’s glib meditations on the British future are an expression of official government thinking.

That should be worrying, not only for what Hunt said, but for the facts and contradictions that were not included in his speech.  For example:

  • The UK is leaving the largest and most successful coalition of liberal democracies in history.
  • The governments that support Brexit are precisely the ones that are most hostile to the ‘values’ that Hunt wants to defend, whether in the United States, Poland, Hungary, Russia or Brazil.
  • Brexit is regarded by far-right ‘populists’ and ethnonationalist formations across the world as a key step towards destroying the multilateral ‘globalist’ order and ‘rule-based’ system that Hunt believes the UK can somehow link together.
  • Under Donald Trump, the US is reimposing MAGA protectionist barriers and turning away from the international treaties and organisations that it helped set up.  The UK is powerless to change this.
  • The ‘soft power’ that Hunt praises has been badly tarnished by the astonishing incompetence and arrogance that his government has shown during the last 2.5 years, and the willingness of so many British politicians to treat its partners like enemies.
  • British diplomacy has been similarly diminished, partly because of the idiocy of politicians like Hunt, who recently compared the EU to the Soviet Union, not to mention the contemptuous act of placing the narcissistic buffoon Boris Johnson as Hunt’s predecessor, who managed to offend almost every country he visited or spoke about.
  • The UK is no longer at the head of a global Empire.  It is a medium-sized power with nuclear weapons, and an economy based largely on finance and services   Within a few years it is very unlikely that it  will even exist in its present form
  • Whatever else holds the UK and Saudi Arabia together, it has nothing to do with ‘values’ or a commitment to democracy.

Hunt seems unaware of any of this, or he simply doesn’t care.  Like so many Brexiters, he looks at history only through the prism of vanished British greatness, when a more realistic appraisal of our post-Brexit prospects really ought to take note of our current weakness and vulnerability.

So I very doubt whether the history students of the future will think of Jeremy Hunt’s the way we were once taught to regard George Canning, and I suspect that his ‘invisible chain’ will be regarded as one more delusion in the British descent into political delirium.

And if this is the best the British government can come up with, we really are going to hit the buffers quite hard.


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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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