The Oddness of the British

 

The current Brexit paralysis in British politics has bemused the continentals, but De Gaulle, had he been alive today, would no doubt have reminded all of his 1963 press conference, during which he justified his decision to veto Britain’s application to join what was then called the Common Market.

Considering the founding six continental states of the Common Market, De Gaulle dwelt on their shared continental geography and economies based on agriculture. Britain, in contrast, he described as insular, maritime, industrial, linked to the most remote markets and possessing ‘very marked and very original habits and traditions.’ (Transcript of De Gaulle’s Press conference statement, 14 January 1963, ETH Zurich university website). While no one could argue with his description of Britain as insular (at least in terms of geography) and maritime, his belief that Britain was essentially industrial and linked to the most remote markets has been, ironically , eroded by time and by the country’s increasing dependence on the European markets which are so much easier to access than those of South East Asia or Latin America , where Britain’s trade has significantly declined or Central Asia where it has never really taken off.

It remains to be seen whether, following Brexit, Britain will again achieve the same levels of trade as it once had in the southern hemisphere or Far East. No amount of bilateral trade deals will make this a reality. Only the creativity, drive and hunger of British companies will enable the British economy to adjust to the transformative effect of Brexit. Political leaders are likely to talk a lot about the opportunities, but are hardly in post long enough to make a difference. The best of our Ambassadors and High Commissioners overseas can and often do, however, make a difference. What constitutes the best is something I would like to come back to on another occasion.

Where de Gaulle was absolutely right, though, was in describing Britain as having ‘very marked and very original habits and traditions.’ What precisely he meant by this, he did not elaborate. But it has seemed to me for quite some time that there are some very clear differences between the way Britain has developed in comparison with continental countries, at least in terms of some of the basics of operating a state. For a start, of course, Britain is odd in not having a written constitution. There is nothing inherently wrong in not having a single constitutional document. Better to have no such constitution than to have a bad one. But it is odd when compared to the continental approach. A further difference lies in the fact that while European legal systems rely on codified statues, the British Common Law system gives judges the leeway to interpret the detail of law based on precedent and custom. 

And yet, when it comes to observing the rules, the approach of the British government has often been criticised at home for following them slavishly. The European approach to the rules and regulations, on the other hand, seems to demonstrate a special ‘flexibility ‘which to us would seem plain wrong. Thus, when France and Germany breeched the economic requirements of the Maastricht treaty by running up excessive debt to GDP rates and budget deficits in 2004-05, they simply suspended the Stability and Growth pact by which their economic profligacy would have been formally censured.  Sweden, which unlike Denmark and Britain had no derogation permitting it to avoid adoption of the Euro, committed on joining the European  Union to adopt the Euro. And yet there are no indications that it really intends to do so . Likewise, when the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa threatened to overwhelm Austria and some Eastern members of the EU, they simply suspended free movement guaranteed under the Schengen agreement. On a wider canvas, Germany which is by far the economic giant of the European Union with the strongest economy, fails to fulfil its NATO spending obligations. 

 

Thus, when France and Germany breeched the economic requirements of the Maastricht treaty by running up excessive debt to GDP rates and budget deficits in 2004-05, they simply suspended the Stability and Growth pact by which their economic profligacy would have been formally censured.  Sweden, which unlike Denmark and Britain had no derogation permitting it to avoid adoption of the Euro, committed on joining the European  Union to adopt the Euro. And yet there are no indications that it really intends to do so . Likewise, when the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa threatened to overwhelm Austria and some Eastern members of the EU, they simply suspended free movement guaranteed under the Schengen agreement. On a wider canvas, Germany which is by far the economic giant of the European Union with the strongest economy, fails to fulfil its NATO spending obligations. 

Other British 'pecularities' come to mind. The layout of the House of Commons and the way that business is conducted there – unchanged in its braying and mob – like baiting from the way in which it was conducted two hundred years ago – must seem odd, not to say undignified, not only to the Continentals, but also to most other states around the world. England’s self – proclaimed title as ‘mother of parliaments’ presumably encourages the notion amongst the political class that there is no real need to change, no matter how much the performance in parliament leaves the electorate embarrassed and at times exasperated. No less embarrassing now is the extraordinarily inflated size of the upper chamber, which at approaching 800 members is second only in size to the National People’s Congress of China. Much has been said about introducing a new and better way of doing business or of reforming the upper house (the last attempt fell apart amidst predictable party squabbles over horse – trading), but nothing actually happens.  

De Gaulle was right: the country is possessed of some very marked habits which perhaps always meant that we would not sit comfortably within the European political arrangement. The current political mess in Westminster, however, gives little reason for confidence , much less pride , in the British system, not matter how flawed the European model. As representative democracy in its current form in this country is proving past its 'best by' date , what options are available to the electorate to improve the performance of its representatives? I have wondered in the past whether mass abstention in some election or another might serve as a warning shot to them But on reflection it seems to me that that would simply leave the field open to the minority of activists on the right and left to deliver a derisory number of votes to secure election for their candidates from one of the currently discredited parties  In other words - no change. 

Attempts to field a third party as a serious alternative over the past 40 years or so have not succeeded in changing the face of politics. That is not to say we should give up trying. But is it not likely that the people who will make up such a third party will by and large be the same kind of people who currently make up the conservatives and labour ? Does the party mindset and machinery provide the right sort of representatives for the 21st Century ?

Diplomacy and Trade in a Post-Brexit World

In my last post ‘The oddness of the British’, I wrote that Britain’s ability to weather the Brexit storm will depend to a large extent on how hungry British businesses will prove to be. Will they for instance be able to seek out and win contracts around the world as many of the Brexiteers expect? I also wrote that, while I had doubts about the ability of politicians to make a lasting difference in supporting a Company’s sales drive overseas, ‘The best of our Ambassadors and High Commissioners can and often do make a difference.’ This was based on my personal experience in a number of overseas markets.

While the popular imagination feeds on images of suave diplomats swanning around at cocktail parties in sophisticated European capitals, the majority spend most of their overseas time in postings that can often be tough. Too often, Embassy staff are at risk in the countries in which they serve. In 1970 Geoffrey Jackson, the Ambassador to Uruguay was kidnapped by Tupomaros guerrillas and held for nine months. Britain’s Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart Biggs and Richard Sykes, the Ambassador to the Netherlands were both assassinated by the IRA in the 1970s. Roger Short, the Consul General in Istanbul was killed in a truck – bombing attack on the Consulate in that city in 2003.  Since 1972, British Diplomatic premises have been attacked in Dublin, Istanbul and Tehran. Further attacks have occurred in South Korea (2004) and in Croatia in 2005 (a letter bomb)

In 2010, a convoy escorting the Deputy Ambassador to Yemen, Fiona Gibb was attacked and in the same year a suicide bomber narrowly failed to kill the Ambassador, Tim Torlot.  A convoy of British Embassy staff being evacuated from Libya during the 2011 revolution was shot at and in 2012 the Ambassador to Libya had a narrow escape when a rocket propelled grenade, apparently the favoured means of attacking diplomatic vehicles, was fired at his car. More recently a member of the staff of the British Embassy in Beirut was murdered there last year. Embassy staff have been evacuated due to security concerns from Somalia in 1991, Albania in 1997, Tehran in 2011, South Sudan in 2013, Yemen in 2015. And this is to say nothing of the exotic illnesses picked up in some of the tougher postings.

Yes, there are plenty of national day receptions to be attended and entertainment of fellow diplomats from other countries is a part of the job, but representing the country abroad as a member of HM Diplomatic Service is not entirely a bowl of cherries.

From the point of view of Britain’s export drive in a post -Brexit world a lot will be expected of our Diplomatic staff and Department for International Trade officials based at our Embassies and High Commissions overseas. Arguably today’s senior diplomats and officials may be more in tune with business requirements than their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s who had been brought up at a time when much of the world was still coloured pink on the map. Britain at that time was still , if not a superpower , at least considered a very significant player and Heads of British Diplomatic Missions still found themselves more naturally at home in the traditional functions of diplomacy than in the trade promotion function.

But, over time there has been a clear change in the behaviour of Ambassadors and High Commissioners in promoting UK PLC abroad. De La Rue, the banknote and (still, at that time) passport printer for which I worked was perhaps not a typical British Company, working as it did for Central Banks and Governments around the world. There was no doubt something intriguing about the products involved which was attractive to many senior Diplomats who had started their careers in the 1960s and 1970s. And by the mid -1990s it was evident that some Ambassadors and High Commissioners were proving very active in their support of the Company’s bid for business overseas.

In my own experience from that time High Commissioners in Malaysia and Cameroon made crucial contributions to our efforts to secure contracts in banknotes and passports. An Ambassador to one African state was so effective in recovering a significant debt owed by that government to De La Rue that it would be no exaggeration to say that he played an important part in turning around an otherwise struggling division of the PLC. Senior Diplomats like Judith MacGregor , a former Ambassador to Mexico , were tremendously helpful in resolving logistical problems which in the case of the shipment of banknotes could prove highly embarrassing if not resolved. Of course, not all Embassies are going to perform to a uniformly effective standard. But if Britain’s economy is going to be supported by an improved performance in exports ,  the current generation of experienced professional diplomats and other officials posted overseas will play an important role in it in addition to all the other things that are expected of them.

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