Britain’s Voyage to Inglorious Isolation

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain at a campaign rally in Bradford, England, on Monday. Credit Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain at a campaign rally in Bradford, England, on Monday. Credit Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

First there was the Brexit drama. Now comes the farce. Almost a year after a narrow majority of Britons voted to pull out of the European Union, British voters face a general election on Thursday that was as unwanted as it was unexpected.

One thing on which all people agree about Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May: She knows how to keep a secret. Even senior party colleagues were taken unawares by the timing of the snap June 8 election. Most still appear to be in the dark about what their campaign message is supposed to be. The prime minister’s mantra, “Strong and stable leadership,” was fine as far as it went. But to what larger purpose?

“Brexit means Brexit” also has a clean ring to it, but Mrs. May has had trouble spelling out what a post-European Britain would look like. There is a world of difference between an amicable divorce and a messy one.

A more honest slogan would be: “Making the best of a bad job.” But no one, not even the party of Winston Churchill, is in the business these days of selling blood, sweat and tears. Brexiteers propose instead recapturing the spirit of an earlier Elizabethan age, when plucky English buccaneers forged pathways to the New World. This is a delusion based on a fantasy of how the 21st-century world works.

What ever happened to internationalist Britain?

An unexpected surge of populist-nationalist rage at globalist elites is often blamed for the Brexit vote. But it is the elites, not the people, who have led Britain’s retreat from Europe and the world.

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is part of a more prolonged disengagement that started years before Brexit. The political leaders of the 1970s, like Edward Heath, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson, who took Britain into Europe had either fought in World War II or lived through it. Even Margaret Thatcher was, initially, an enthusiast for membership in Europe. They understood the prewar perils of a disunited Europe.

Their heirs, who were elected to Parliament in the late 1990s and the first decade of this century, have had less experience of the world beyond Britain’s shores than any political generation in decades, perhaps even centuries. They have become the leaders of a post-internationalist Britain, a new insularity that Churchill would have found unfathomable.

I happened to attend university with almost this entire echelon of today’s political class. David Cameron, the former prime minister, was two years my senior at Oxford. George Osborne, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, was three years below me. In this same cohort were Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary; Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader; and Ed Balls, a former senior Labour leader. Mrs. May, who also went to Oxford, is several years older than this group, but her politics epitomize Britain’s retreat into a provincial mind-set. (Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, escapes this narrow demographic. He attended North London Polytechnic.)

With brief exceptions, such as Mr. Johnson’s spell as a journalist in Brussels, in which he spun unflattering and mostly mendacious tales about the “Eurocrats,” few of this group evinced much interest in world affairs. Most, like Mr. Cameron, started their careers as student political hacks, and the ties they forged nourished their political careers for the next three decades. What they lacked in global experience they substituted with London networking.

Among Mr. Cameron’s social circle, known as the “chumocracy,” vacationing in Tuscany did not compensate for a lack of experience or curiosity in global affairs. In Mrs. Thatcher’s day, an invitation to the prime minister’s weekend retreat meant a rigorous schedule of seminars. In Mr. Cameron’s time, the agenda consisted rather of tennis, croquet and Pimm’s cocktails.

It is up to Mrs. May, or possibly Mr. Corbyn, to pick up the pieces. The initial polling predictions of a landslide win for Mrs. May have evaporated amid a lackluster campaign. The likeliest outcome of Thursday’s election is that Mrs. May’s Conservatives will win re-election but without a strong mandate.

As Election Day approaches, Britain’s voters seem disenchanted with the choices offered. The recent terrorist attacks, first in Manchester, now in London, have only reinforced the public’s skeptical mood about their political leaders — all of which raises the chances of a hobbled British government even less able to handle the Brexit negotiations than before.

Brussels could cope with a nasty divorce. Britain could not. It would thus pay for Britain to be nice. Yet Mrs. May seems to be going out of her way to rub the Europeans the wrong way. Early in the campaign, she warned European leaders darkly against interfering in Britain’s election. She referred to unspecified “threats” from the Continent in the way most Western democracies talk about Russia.

Europe rarely achieves a speedy consensus on anything, but thanks to Mrs. May, the 27 member states (minus Britain) are now of one mind. If this qualifies as tactical smarts, how much worse could Mr. Corbyn do?

It is not only in Brussels that the self-described “bloody difficult woman” may be in for a bloody difficult time. A crisis of legitimacy could soon emerge. Mrs. May inherited a Conservative majority in the House of Commons of just 17 seats, which she clearly felt was too narrow for comfort. If she fails to lift that margin much beyond 30, people will ask why she bothered to call an election in the first place. Leadership rivals will start circling.

With the prospects of a disadvantageous Brexit deal rising, Scotland would be tempted to push for another referendum on independence. Northern Ireland, too, where a majority of people voted to Remain, may become restive if its open border with the Republic of Ireland, a mainstay member of the European Union, is placed in doubt. Amid all this disunion, Britain would turn further in on itself. So much for plucky buccaneering.

This is the pass that our provincial-minded elite has brought us to. Unserious about the country’s tradition of global engagement, this generation has squandered the prestige of Britain’s place in the postwar international order, all for petty party advantage and pandering.

After his Brexit debacle, Mr. Cameron left power much as he had wielded it, humming absent-mindedly as he bade farewell from Downing Street. But he, a son of privilege, has landed on his feet. The same is by no means certain for Britain.

Edward Luce, the chief American columnist and commentator of The Financial Times, is the author of The Retreat of Western Liberalism.

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