Seventy years since Britain exited Palestine, the region offers a clue to our future and much diminished status
‘Global Britain’. To Leavers, it suggests a moment of fantastic opportunity – a teenage backpacker let loose to roam free. To Remainers, it is presumably supposed to say that, despite Brexit, we are not going to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world – even if that is what some Leave voters, perhaps even a decisive number of them – actually wanted. In short, it’s a phrase cleverly designed to promise many things to many people. At least some of them will be disappointed.
Boris Johnson began his first major post-referendum ‘Global Britain’ policy speech, given in December 2016, with a lesson in imperial history. ‘There is a sense in which the British cemetery in Kabul is a monument to the human spirit,’ the Foreign Secretary suggested. He went on to relate the history of the cemetery, concluding with the fact that in our time, after various ages of neglect and destruction, it is restored – and also remembers those who have been killed in the last 15 years.
Those latest service personnel to give their lives had done so, he argued, ‘for the sake not of imperial glory but in the hope of improving the lives of the people of Afghanistan’. Johnson’s point may not have been about ‘imperial glory’, but by mentioning the phrase, he was reminding his audience – especially Brexiteers who cherish the idea of empire – of that ‘glory’.
There was something there for Remainers, too: the altruism of improving the lives of others. It was the Leaver/Remainer message all over again: even if the foreign secretary might have found a better example. Britain’s history in Afghanistan may indeed be one of bravery, selflessness, and sacrifice. It is not one of unqualified success.
There were echoes, too, of a less well-remembered episode of imperial history: one which ended 70 years ago, but which was – indirectly – back in the news earlier this month. The reason why it was back in the news may actually offer a clue to the extent and nature of our post-Brexit diplomatic power.
In May 1948, British rule in Palestine came to an end. After the First World War, the League of Nations had entrusted to Britain the government of this part of the former Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War, it had become ungovernable. The British eventually left, ending the ‘Mandate’ as the arrangement had been known. Bloodshed and expulsions followed: an era remembered today by Israelis as the war of independence; by Palestinians as al-Nakba (‘the catastrophe’).
As the hour of departure drew near, the British press corps – and they, along with reporters from other countries, were numerous – strove to make the best of a bad job. There was celebration of the advances which the Mandate had overseen. As the Daily Mirror wrote on 14 May 1948, ‘When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped. The population of 750, 000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out.’
There are clear echoes with the emphasis placed on social progress – even as military victory proved elusive – in Afghanistan in more recent times. The day after the Mirror summed up the Mandate, the Daily Mail adorned its report with imperialist detail, telling readers that, ‘a solitary piper played on the roof of government house’ as the High Commissioner left. There was even room to record the fact that, ‘The weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack which was lowered for the last time from British Headquarters,’ had already been brought back to London – symbolically closing this rather sorry chapter of imperial history.
Because it ended as it did – laying the ground for the battle over land and resources which continues in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza to this day – Britain’s time as ruler of the Holy Land is rarely little remembered here outside the circles of scholarship and diplomacy. In the Middle East, it is a different matter. Any British journalist or other visitor to the Palestinian territories even now is likely to be reminded sooner or later of their country’s past as the ruling power. For Palestinians, Britain’s role in the region led to the creation of the State of Israel – and their dispossession.
The Foreign Office has always understood that. Because of the sensitivity of Britain’s history in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, Britain’s diplomatic service have always seen to it that Israeli invitations for members of the Royal Family to visit have been politely declined. It was rumoured last year that was going to change, but in the end plans for Prince Charles to go – in an official capacity, he has visited Israel in a private capacity – came to nothing.
The change has now come, with the announcement in a tweet from Kensington Palace earlier this month that, ‘the Duke of Cambridge will visit Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the Summer’. This offers an insight into post-Brexit diplomacy – and the limits of its powers.
While some Israelis, including arguably the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish State, will no doubt be delighted by the shift, others are not fooled. ‘With diminished clout on the world stage, [Britain] must utilize whatever assets it has,’ wrote Anshel Pfeffer in the liberal newspaper Haaretz. ‘And the one thing Britain has is a generation of young royals who are instantly recognizable across the globe.’
So this is how ‘Global Britain’ is taking shape: our recognisable royals deployed to help to forge new trading and diplomatic links. We have to play to our advantages, after all – and they no longer include, as they did in imperial times, the world’s strongest navy as powerful inducement to trade on our terms.
It may be largely forgotten in the UK today, but the British Mandate in Palestine continues to cast a shadow over Britain’s reputation in the region – so Brexit, in this case at least, will also mean giving up the diplomatic clout which went with EU membership. Whatever Brexiteers may say, Britain alone, as in many other walks of diplomatic life, is unlikely to command the respect in the Middle East which it did as an EU member. It may be that the Brexiteers are not concerned by that, in which case their talk of ‘Global Britain’ rings very hollow.
The foreign secretary drew on Britain’s past in Afghanistan to make his case for a ‘Global Britain.’ For all the undoubted good intentions that led to our involvement there in the last fifteen years, it may come to be remembered, like the British Mandate, only by those with an interest in the region – and then, not favourably.
It will be interesting to see if this version of ‘Global Britain’ goes the same way – a policy which seemed like a good idea at the time (to some people, at least) but actually did not turn out very well. Still, it may give a future Foreign Secretary material for a speech in which he or she can build a case for putting up with the twists of fortune which follow to be seen as a ‘monument to the human spirit’.
James Rodgers (@jmacrodgers) is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (recently published in paperback). His next book, Assignment Moscow, is due in 2020. He is a former BBC correspondent in Gaza