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Boris Johnson Would Do Well to Read a Bit More British History
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What will be Britain’s standing in the world compared to other nation states after Brexit? Sane analysis has been overwhelmed by vituperative debate as we get closer to the day of the great rupture.

Boris Johnson claimed in his resignation speech that after a full-throttle Brexit, Britain will be in a good position to become “one of the great independent actors” on the world stage. He feared only a failure in the necessary will-power and self-confidence “to believe in this country and what it can do”.

But what can this country really do? How far will greater independence outside the EU be real rather than nominal? Will strength of will in pursuit of self-determination make much difference when we will always be holding a weaker hand of cards than our neighbours?

This imbalance of forces is highlighted every day in the Brexit negotiations, and there is no reason why this should change in our favour after we leave.

Supporters of Brexit discount such realpolitik, saying that they are inspired – and seek to emulate – a past in which Britain as a fully independent state won victories against the odds. Critics often deride this approach as self-indulgent nostalgia, but there are real lessons to be learned from past British experience.

The problem is that Brexiteers, when they take a serious view of British history that is not coloured by Shakespeare’s plays or Errol Flynn movies, have never shown much understanding of the roots of Britain’s successes.

The British only stood alone during the centuries when they had miscalculated the political wind direction, or had been left with absolutely no alternative. At the heart of British strategy was the drive to join or create alliances with other countries powerful enough to overcome any enemy.

It was this formula that put Britain on the winning side in the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and the Second: the three great conflicts that shaped the contemporary world.

Against Napoleon, it was the combination of Britain with Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire that produced the victory for which the British traditionally claimed exaggerated credit. In the 1914-18 war, the British priority was to bring about US intervention, and the same was true in 1939-45.

Britain only stood heroically alone during a relatively short period between the fall of France in 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, followed later in the year by his declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

Churchill’s record as a military leader was dubious in both wars – remember Gallipoli and Norway. His greater and more valuable skill was to foster and maintain a grand alliance against Germany which was bound to win in the end. The centrality of these alliances tends to be masked by unwavering focus on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the triumphs of the British codebreakers.

British pre-eminence was based on defence by the Royal Navy, which prevented invasion, and the patient construction of a war-winning coalition. The last time Britain fought a major conflict without such an alliance was the American war of independence, which concluded with disappointing results for our side.

Exaggerated presumptions of national superiority are scarcely a monopoly of the Brexiteers, or even of the British, but the referendum has made them peculiarly destructive. What is interpreted as unfair bullying by the EU, or unnecessary timidity on the part of Theresa May, is simply a reflection of our inferior – and their superior – strength.

Johnson suggested that Britain might do well to emulate Trump’s negotiating style of laying down the law and threatening to walk away. But he crucially missed the point that such bravado is the perquisite of the strong, and weak countries do not dare to bluff because that bluff is likely to be called.

It would be a caricature of the Brexiteers’ mentality to imagine that they believe that what worked well at Crecy, Blenheim and El Alamein has much to do with what goes on at present. But this mythology does create a national mood that makes it difficult for the English – the same is no longer true of Britain as a whole – to carry out any great political enterprise.

Brexit is only the latest in a series of British ventures this millennium in which political class has miscalculated what we could accomplish. The process was already evident when Britain was engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and failed to achieve its ends in all three of them.

There is nothing secret about what happened. The Chilcot Report, for instance, lucidly explained in great detail how the British government did not know what it was getting into in Iraq and ended up, after all its efforts, signing a humiliating truce agreement with a local Shia militia in Basra.

Britain was repeatedly caught by surprise by events, tumbling out of Iraq into even bloodier skirmishing in Helmand province in Afghanistan. In Libya, it should have been perfectly obvious that if Gaddafi fell, there was nobody but predatory militias to replace him, and much the same was true in opposing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

At some point, the British political, diplomatic and military establishment seems to have lost its touch or capacity to learn from experience.

The difficulty people have in picturing life after Brexit is that what are essentially political issues are framed in economic terms, so anxiety and hope are directed far too much towards the future economic consequences of Brexit. This diverts attention from the fact that the political disaster is already with us and visible for all to see.


Britain has been generally more united than its rivals and opponents over the last three centuries, but Brexit has provoked a degree of disunity not seen since the 17th century. It is absurd for the Brexiteers to keep saying that “the nation” decided to leave the EU in the referendum, and act as if this were so, because nothing is clearer than that the nation is split down the middle.

And the very definition of that nation – is it the United Kingdom or England? – is in doubt, since Scotland voted to remain, as did a majority in Northern Ireland. The Brexiteers scarcely seem to notice that they have reopened the Ulster Question, which bedevilled British politics from Gladstone’s efforts to pass a Home Rule Bill in the 1880s to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, a country that once seemed to possess the secret of stability has become permanently self-absorbed in its own divisions. Johnson’s puerile bombast and jingoism has its uses because it neatly sums up what is not likely to happen: “A great Brexit” he claimed “will unite this party, unite this House and unite this nation.”

But nothing is less likely to happen. Brexit is exacerbating all other grievances and divisions. These will be worse after Brexit than before. Britain is already weaker than at any time since the end of the Stuart monarchy.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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  1. Another damp squib from the sputtering Cockburn

  2. Gordo says:

    So we should continue to shackle ourselves to the antiWhite, corrupt criminal conspiracy that is the EU?

    • Replies: @Macon Richardson
  3. Vojkan says:

    When one expects to read an argumented article about Boris Johnson’s lack of competence in international affairs, and realises that he has been fed with hard to digest liberal goblin gobbledygook.

  4. hyperbola says:

    Cockburn seems to be stuck in old Brit-imperialism mode. A better focus is whether “europe” is worth being part of. I suppose that one could make the argument that Europe has become just as corrupt and totalitarian as Britain and therefore is an attractive proposition. Just that Juncker and others like Tusk are in control of the corruption instead of Brits.

    Luxembourg Government Forced To Resign Over GLADIO False Flag Attack Linked Scandal
    Operation GLADIO – NATO’s abhorrent post WWII strategy of secretly carrying out terrorist attacks and blaming them on communists, has resurfaced and brought the Government of Luxembourg to its knees. On Wednesday Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker announced his resignation…..

    Jean-Claude Juncker and tax haven Luxembourg, in a picture

    Donald Tusk and his son in the centre of a fraud
    This affair is a huge scandal. It involves the current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and his son Michał. Donald Tusk presents himself as a politician who cares very much about the rule of law in Poland. When he was Poland’s prime minister, however, he ignored information given to him by the Chief of the Internal Security Agency and the President of the National Bank of Poland. They both warned him that his son was involved in a Ponzi scheme called Amber Gold…..

  5. The peculiar thing about this article is that it refers almost entirely to military rather than economic precedents.

    Yet surely military security is not the argument for staying in the EU. If that is the concern, maintaining good relations with the US, or shoring up NATO would be the goal — nothing to do with BREXIT.

    • Agree: Vojkan
    • Replies: @Vojkan
  6. Dule says:

    Seems that Cockburn has been studying history from different books than the rest of us. I always thought that Napoleon was defeated by Russians, who underwent enormous losses and suffering in the process, without receiving any help from Great Britain. The same goes for WWII which was decided at Stalingrad and Kursk, with more than 80% of all Germans losses being inflicted on the Eastern front. The western front was opened by USA only to prevent the Red Army to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

    • Replies: @Logan
    , @Logan
    , @Philip Owen
  7. Vojkan says:
    @Colin Wright

    And that in a time when the risk of a foreign military invasion of the UK is about as probable as a hit by a giant meteorite. The only invasion the UK is at risk of is that of migrants dispatched by the EU. Leftism is not an ideology, it is a mental illness.

    • Agree: YetAnotherAnon
    • Replies: @byrresheim
  8. It’s all fine & good to cite British alliances in times of war, but the salient point is that Britain, as a mercantile or trading power, always went its own way and prospered.

    • Agree: jim jones
  9. @Gordo

    With all respect, it appears your options are to shackle yourselves to the anti-white, corrupt criminal conspiracy that is the EU or to shackle yourselves to the anti-white corrupt criminal conspiracy that is the UK.

  10. Yes, Britain is weak. For that the Brits can thank the PMs post Thatcher, the last 3 particularly, who have allowed thousands of inassimilable invaders into their country. Add the liberalism of those same idiots, and you get a perfect storm.

  11. 36 ulster says:

    Let’s give the Red Army credit for inflicting 80+% of German casualties–and for suffering 95% of Allied casualties in the process. Also, I’m glad that the Anglo-British-Canadian forces reached the Elbe ahead of the Soviets.

  12. @Vojkan

    Reminds one of abused children blaming anyone but their abusive parents.

    Please do research where the wonderful idea of inviting the world first was put into practice after the second antigerman war.

    You sound as if you might be surprised by the result of such research.

  13. We do not spell Pearl Harbor with a “U,” friend Limey.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  14. Logan says:

    The western front was opened by USA only to prevent the Red Army to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

    Ahistorical. The western front, counter-attack by the western powers, started with Operation Torch in November, 1042. Well before the Germans went on the defensive.

    More importantly, Stalin pressed very hard for the allies to invade Europe, hardly something he’d do if he thought it would only be to limit his own advances.

  15. Logan says:

    The British in the Peninsular Campaign played a huge role in bleeding Napoleon’s empire. Not to mention their naval exploits and that they were the only power constantly at war, with one minor intermission, with France throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.

    All the other powers allied themselves at various times with the French when they thought it convenient.

    • Replies: @Alden
  16. In the 1914-18 war, the British priority was to bring about US intervention, and the same was true in 1939-45.

    It’s refreshing to see a Brit (or Mick, whatever the Co’burns are) admit that modern American imperialism is their child. We just toyed with it before, in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a few other inconsequentialities.

    followed later in the year by his declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

    We could have laughed that off, too. Some fagstache bully calls us names.Big deal.

  17. “Brexit is only the latest in a series of British ventures this millennium in which political class has miscalculated what we could accomplish. The process was already evident when Britain was engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and failed to achieve its ends in all three of them.”

    The big difference is that Brexit is NOT a project of the UK political class, who are overwhelmingly pro-EU (doubtless seeing it as serving in Heaven as opposed to ruling in Hell), who were horrified by the result, and who are desperately trying to reverse it.

    Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya ARE projects of our political class, and they achieved the ends of creating millions of refugees, along with opening the Med to illegal immigrant boats. Those were the ends they kept quiet about.

  18. @John Burns, Gettysburg Partisan

    “We do not spell Pearl Harbor with a “U,” friend Limey.”

    In Mr Cockburn’s defence, you must endeavour to tolerate this and not let it colour your views. He’s writing for a British paper, and inevitably will analyse a situation in British English. I hope this dialogue won’t end up fuelling mistrust between neighbours.

  19. @Dule

    Russia/USSR allied with the French during the early stages of the Napoleonic wars and the Nazis in WW2. Britain never stopped fighting across the Channel, in the Atlantic, in North Africa and in Burma. The USSR had one front and nearly lost repeatedly. Only by throwing away huge numbers of men (impossible ina democracy) did the SU prevail.

  20. Anon[641] • Disclaimer says:

    “At some point, the British political, diplomatic and military establishment seems to have lost its touch or capacity to learn from experience.”

    Its really just a desire to get out and use their war toys bombing stuff. After all whats the point of joining the military industrial complex if you can’t be a hero.

  21. Alden says:

    It’s none of Britain’s business what goes on in the continent. All Britain has done since about 1150 AD is invade invade and invade the continent again and again and again as well as endlessly fomenting wars; Spain against the empire, France against Spain, the Empire against Prussia Netherlands against France for centuries.

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