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How Boris Johnson destroyed the UK’s global standing

Prime Minister Boris Johnson - Credit: PA

Donald MacIntyre on how Britain’s reputation is changing in the eyes of the world

Although he was one of the most celebrated British diplomats of the era, few now remember how explosive was the leaking of the farewell telegram the UK ambassador to Paris Sir Nicholas (Nico) Henderson wrote about Britain’s international standing for his political masters in Whitehall in 1979. It was mainly his gloomy analysis of Britain’s lagging economic performance which provided some of the fashionable intellectual heft among opinion formers cheering on Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory.

Yet the dispatch’s most lasting legacy –bitterly ironic to reread as Brexit talks this week reach what surely must be one of their last ‘crunch points’– was his devastating analysis of why as a medium-sized power Britain needed – and could make such a creative contribution to – the then EEC; of how the US had from the first wanted to see Britain playing a strong part in what is now the EU – which will be as true as ever after Trump as it was before him—and that the UK’s own national interests lay in “behaving as if we were fully and irrevocably committed to Europe”.

Nor did this section fall on deaf ears at the time. It’s easy to forget that beside promoting the single market which the present government is hell bent on abandoning in less than a month, Thatcher for all her pugnaciousness, did not contemplate leaving the EU while in office. But 40 years on, Henderson’s ‘the country’s going to the dogs’ treatise also prompts an intriguing thought about what a present-day departing British ambassador might want to get off their chest about how others see us after the first year of the Johnson premiership.

In European capitals at least, the story would surely be one of sheer disbelief about how Britain ever thought it could leave a Union of which it had been a successful if sometimes fractious member for 45 years without paying a price. No doubt our ambassador’s consular officials will already be fielding complaints from “the furious expats” whom the Mail and Telegraph reported on Monday are “blasting  EU rules” which they have suddenly discovered will not permit them to stay in their continental holiday homes for more than three months at a time (yes, you read that right) without a visa.

Given the UK’s determination to end freedom of movement, there was always going to be some pushback against Brits travelling for long sojourns in most EU countries, whether couples with a single caravan in the Dordogne, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet-style workers on German building sites or villa-owners seeking a “beaker full of the warm south” from April to September in the style of the Edwardian upper class.

Globule Britain – Credit: Martin Rowson

The expats have a point when they say they are only asking to be treated the same as EU citizens owning second homes in the UK. But our ambassador will still regard their outrage as a symbol of something much wider: the British governing elite’s failure to grasp that if you leave a club to avoid a few allegedly irksome rules, you cannot still hold on to all the benefits. That we can’t dump whatever tariff-free goods on a trading bloc we have chosen not to belong to and whose regulations, environmental, labour and so on, we want henceforth to ignore.  And that if – for example – much of the fish British fishermen catch in British waters (scallops and sole, say) is, as the Financial Times pointed out this week, exported – mainly to Europe – while much of it that Britons actually eat (like cod and haddock) is imported, there will be a cost to “taking back control” of our supposedly soon to be foreigner-free fishing grounds.

Johnson likes to depict a new post- Brexit “Global Britain”, freed from the shackles of the world’s biggest trading bloc. Yet it’s hardly original to point out this is happening just when globalisation is beginning to look obsolescent and governments are increasingly dividing into just those blocs. And the disadvantages of that apply as much to foreign policy as to trade. Back in July, when Britain was struggling to protect Hong Kong’s citizens from repression, the former UN deputy general secretary Mark Malloch-Brown told the New York Times: “One consequence of a post-globalisation world is that people will start to think in a defensive way about blocs. Britain is adrift without a bloc. That is going to be challenging, and a first example of this is Hong Kong.” A second one came this week with Australia’s discovery that a mere bilateral trade agreement with China hardly protected it from Beijing’s gruesome fake image purporting to show an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.

A diplomat’s survey of the many ways in which Britain’s reputation has suffered during this horrible year would probably start with Covid. OK, there would be bright moments to report: on Wednesday British regulators became the first to approve a vaccine, the new Pfizer/BioNTech dose. By contrast their European counterparts are not expected to act until December 29, meaning no EU citizen will get the jab before next year. But it could hardly ignore a ministerial approach that was all too casual early in the pandemic in the face of evidence from as near as Italy about how serious it was, and has been relentlessly clumsy since then. (Not to mention the controversial doling out of lucrative Covid-related contracts).

It would rehearse the European press ridicule heaped on Johnson after Dominic Cummings’ unpunished trip to Barnard Castle: the PM was “losing his ability to scent what the people will and won’t put up with” (El Pais); and “In its shamelessness, it was a return to the playbook of his early months in office, when he gloried in the disapproval of his political enemies over his prorogation

of parliament and (false) claim he would not fulfil his legal obligation to seek a delay to Brexit” (Irish Times). It might mention Der Spiegel’s shaming depiction of Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and Putin as “the leaders of the infected world”.

And it could hardly ignore current developments. For the political management of the crisis reached its nadir with this week’s parliamentary fracas, one in which Michael Gove, by warning that an out of control pandemic is hardly going to help the economy, belatedly emerged (on this) as the nearest the government has to a responsible adult. Until he got Scotch egg on his face by U-turning on whether the famed product qualified  under the new ‘drinks only with food’ regime.

The Commons approved the new Covid restrictions but only after the biggest parliamentary revolt of the year. Fifty-five Tory MPs –  by no means all of them those pressing Johnson to make zero concessions in trade talks with the EU – voted against the new tiers, despite what one MP called Johnson’s “risible” last minute offer of £1,000 to pubs stricken by the measures.

But a 2020 Nico Henderson would have to be still more comprehensive than that. Much of Britain’s shrinking world influence flows directly from Brexit of course, starting with the all too real possibility that there will not be a United Kingdom at all before long. Scotland’s decisive 2016 vote for Remain, coupled with Johnson’s chronic personal ability to infuriate the Scots, is what enabled a bullish Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP conference this week to escalate the threat of a second independence referendum, even to the possible point of mounting a court challenge to Johnson’s supposed power to stop it happening. And even though, as she coyly declined to admit in a BBC radio interview, it could well mean customs posts at the Anglo-Scottish border if the outcome of the current UK-Trade talks is no-deal or if the thin deal which appears to be the only available alternative, unravels as it well might.

And that’s hardly all. A diplomatic estimate of the slump in British’s influence can hardly under-estimate the devastating impact of her new found disdain for international law. Of which the outstanding – but not only – example to cause tremors in Europe’s chancelleries is the government’s Internal Market Bill – a breath-taking violation of a signed treaty. The simple concession which Johnson made to the EU withdrawal bill was that in order to prevent a post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Northern Ireland would – for goods – remain within the EU’s single market. Some form of border/customs controls, it flowed from that, would have to be established in the Irish Sea between the two islands. And it was the latter requirement which Johnson sought to revoke with his new bill, meaning that either the Good Friday Agreement or the integrity of the EU’s single market would be breached.

OK, maybe it will never stand because neither Congress or president-elect Joe Biden will grant Johnson his precious US trade agreement if it does. And yes, the Lords has so far rejected it. And of course the government says it’s a ‘just in case’ measure, among the other conflicting excuses it has come up with.

But the fact that he was prepared to use his Commons majority to tear up a crucial element of a treaty solemnly entered into is indication enough that Britain no longer enjoys the reputation it once did as a champion of international law. Which responsible government will now not at least hesitate before signing a treaty with the Johnson government?

Not every erosion of Britain’s international clout is Brexit’s fault of course. But even those that aren’t are all the more remarkable when ministers inflict them on the country just when it is forfeiting the influence it enjoys through the EU. Was it only chancellor Rishi Sunak’s brilliant idea to cut back overseas aid – and with it an incontestable source of ‘soft power’ previously generated by the globally respected and now summarily abolished Department for International Development? And all for £3-4 billion, compared with the current £280 billion and rising his response to the pandemic is costing?

And finally our putative British ambassador might also want to mention a much more trivial issue, though one which may be dear to his or her heart if they had to argue for the relevant decision to their host government, as they probably would have would have done.

Goodness knows Lord Mandelson is not everyone’s cup of hot water and lemon, but at least as a former European trade commissioner, he was well qualified to be Britain’s candidate to run the World Trade Organisation – a job which could yet prove rather important to London after Brexit. What’s more he might even have got the backing of European governments to do it. Instead Liam Fox was put forward to compensate for the fact that though fully qualifying as an ardent Brexiteer, he had failed to meet the not very high standards set for membership of the new cabinet when Johnson took over in 2019. Once Whitehall fought pretty hard to get a Brit into a big international job. This time Johnson must have known Fox had no chance.

So plenty for our putative departing ambassador to write about. Of course the politically most radioactive time for such a missive to be written – and leaked – would be not now, but in an election year. Maybe by then “Global Britain” –complete with Scotland – will be forging ahead as vigorously as Johnson hopes, reversing this year’s decline in the country’s international standing. And maybe not.

If the latter, such a leak could help Keir Starmer as Thatcher certainly thought it had helped her in 1979. Not only did she heed the dispatch from Henderson, who had been due to retire at 60 after Paris. She unexpectedly kept him on and sent him to Washington as a reward.

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