Britain’s Role in the World

About as long as anyone under 80 can remember, there has been continual agonising about “Britain’s role in the world”.  Of particular salience has been worries about the so-called Special Relationship with the USA which seems to boil down, in the minds of politicians that is, to their ability to get on with Presidents of the USA.

Given that this particular bit of the relationship hasn’t been of decisive importance to a US President since the Battle of Normandy which ended with the closing of the Falaise gap on August 21 1944 – 66 years ago – it is much more worthwhile to regard the relationship with the USA as a set of on-going relationships (plural) of which the satellite-based intelligence system Echelon (see introduction to ABCANZ page) is by far the most important, including as it does our sister countries Australia, Canada, New Zealand and spanning the world from East to West and North to South.

The Echelon relationships are sustained by professionals – military and intelligence – not by politicians who have little or nothing to bring to the party.  Likewise common military programmes, university research collaborations, joint business ventures, tourism and trade are the stuff of relationships with the USA as they are with other Western countries.  When in the 1990s the then British company, Lucas, displaced the German company, Robert Bosch, as the supplier of fuel injection systems for new Volkswagen models, they did so because Volkswagen judged Lucas’s systems to be better for their purposes than Bosch’s, irrespective of the EU political relationship.

None of this calls for a constant effusion of declarations by British Prime Ministers such as we have heard lately from David Cameron in the USA, Turkey and now India, where his toe-curling ingratiating words about supposed British attitudes to India were absurd and comments on Pakistan’s problems with terrorism frankly insulting.

While clearly India has a growing market for foreign goods, it is only about half the size of Canada’s which senior British politicians rarely bother to visit.  (Cameron could easily have stopped off in Ottawa on his recent visit to Washington.)  British goods account for about 3% of non-US Canadian imports (down from 8.2% in 1995) and about 3% of Indian imports (down from 7% in 1995), so arguably the opportunities for British exporters are at least as great in Canada as in India.

What is needed however to increase British exports to both countries is a much greater range of goods to sell, rather than homilies from David Cameron or musings from George Osborne, Britain’s senior Treasury minister, about the contribution British banks could make to India’s economy.  (India’s banks were forbidden to indulge in the loan frenzy which has engulfed British and American banks – so the only lesson for India there is don’t do what British and American banks do or have done.)

The reduction in the range of British-made consumer goods in the last 15 years or so has been particularly marked as a result principally of foreign takeovers which have removed both existing brands and design opportunities to foreign locations.  Only a systematic determination to design, make and sell goods from British factories will enable Britain to regain the ground lost in countries like Canada and India.

As for Britain’s role in the world, nobody likes a debtor.  So why don’t British politicians take a vow of silence for the next 10 years and apply their minds to the unglamorous job of eliminating our enormous £90 billion goods trading deficit while adding about a million new manufacturing jobs to our economy.  When that has been done, there will be ample scope to equip our armed forces properly, build a decent road and rail system, look after our aging population.  Time enough then for “roles”.

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