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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 17:02 GMT
Kicking the imperialist habit
By Brian Walden

Brian Walden
British foreign policy needs a rethink and the UK should stop kidding itself about its role in the world today, says Brian Walden in his weekly broadcast and column.

My grandfather was an unrepentant Imperialist. He was immensely proud of the Empire and felt personally responsible for what he thought were its triumphs and disasters.

His son-in-law, my father, didn't share his views. He referred to the immaculately dressed old man as 'the dandy who won the Boer War'. The two men used to debate Imperial issues with a passion and eloquence that impressed me as I listened outside the parlour door.

I was especially fond of their high moral tone. It was years later that I realised their disagreements were superficial. Fundamentally they were in agreement. Both of them thought Britain was the centre of the world. They judged everything by reference to British standards.

I remember the way my father defended Gandhi. He said: 'Gandhi became a lawyer in London. He's had experience of proper British principles in the law.' He would have been appalled if anyone had told him he was being grossly patronising. To say that somebody possessed British principles was the highest praise he could bestow.

That Britain might at any moment be called upon to act in a distant land seemed to him the most natural thing in the world. He would say of some international crisis. "It won't be put right you know, until Britain does something about it."

It's with sadness I accept I no longer believe anything like that. What surprises me is that so many of our politicians and diplomats still seem to believe it.


A critic ought to make clear where he's coming from. So I will. I think governing tens of millions of people in a democracy is one of the hardest jobs to do really well. Before I criticise the foreign policy of the major parties, let me give a detailed example of how difficult the choices can be.

Hamas supporters
Hamas' election success poses difficulties for UK foreign policy
Last week Hamas won the election in Palestine. As everyone knows, Hamas has a potent terrorist wing which has sent many suicide bombers into Israel. And it's friendly towards Iran, whose president said that Israel should be wiped off the map. Surely there can't be any argument about Britain's policy towards Hamas?

But there's another side to the question. Hamas won a free election fair and square. The West in general, and the United States and Britain in particular, insist that what is respected most in any country is democracy in action. Well, Hamas is democracy in action. Additionally Hamas isn't corrupt and does a lot of welfare work. Some say that's why so many Palestinians voted for it.

Unfortunately, Britain can't recognise the parts of Hamas that do the welfare work without acknowledging the Hamas terrorists. So rejection it must be, mustn't it?

Not necessarily, say even some of those who loathe Hamas.

Too many people at the top have a misplaced confidence that Britain has, not just a role, but a major role to play in world affairs
The best thing that could happen to the Middle East and maybe the whole world is a permanent settlement in Palestine. Voices are raised begging the British Government to recognise Hamas and urge it to give up terrorism.

Incidentally, given the fact that it is going to be running things - or helping to - in Palestine it isn't easy to grasp the mechanics of how we refuse to recognise it.

So what should British policy be? I don't know. This week frantic work was going on behind the scenes diplomatically with some asking if Britain needs to take a position.

Complex diplomacy

I've cited this example to show how complex apparently simple decisions can be. I wouldn't want to give the impression that British politicians and diplomats are muffing all the easy chances on offer to secure peace and prosperity for everybody.

Some politicians, in attacking their opponents, talk as if choosing the right policies is only a matter of common sense and goodwill. That isn't true and I'm not going to criticise from that standpoint.

Tony Blair and George W Bush at a join press conference in 2004
Many believe Britain punches far above its weight in terms of diplomatic influence
Nevertheless, even after acknowledging the difficulties, I believe Britain's foreign policy needs to be rethought fundamentally. Instead of pushing ourselves forward as global policemen we ought to face some unpleasant realities of the 21st Century.

One of them is that much of what is labelled progress is an illusion. The world hasn't become a safer place. On the contrary, it's never been as dangerous to human existence as it is now.

New technologies of mass extermination are comparatively cheap and are becoming ever more easily available. Perhaps whatever the democratic states do won't be enough to keep their people safe, but that cause isn't helped by the situation we currently see in Iraq.

I don't want to rake over all the coals of that tragic conflict. Yet there's one thing I don't fully understand. I can't grasp why Britain, of all countries, didn't realise that the problem of Iraq wasn't necessarily winning a military victory, but having a good plan of governance from the outset - as the intention was to settle in for some time.

The Foreign Office must be full of blokes who could tell you the dangers of that. Iraq, they would say, has always been a hotbed of racial and religious tension. I remember being told many years ago that it was ungovernable in its present form, at least by any decent means. So why was the occupation not better planned?

'Imperial spirit'

As far as Britain is concerned, probably for the same reason we got into the whole business to begin with. Not the wickedness or greed that some critics suggest, but because something of the imperial spirit of my father and grandfather still survives in a modern fashion.

Now, I think we need to stop kidding ourselves about our role. In the real world... there isn't a long queue of countries lining up to receive our moral guidance
Too many people at the top have a misplaced confidence that Britain has, not just a role, but a major role to play in world affairs. That's why we keep being told that we punch above our weight diplomatically. And such bounding self-confidence isn't confined to any one political party or faction. It's as if we are prey to a collective delusion. I include myself, at least as far as past actions are involved.

Let me tell you of something that happened to me 40 years ago. We weren't then in the Common Market and I was talking to two MPs, one of whom was in favour of joining, the other was against. In the hope of being conciliatory I rather jokingly suggested that we might apply for associate membership, which would give us the economic benefits, but no political obligations or control.

The absence of political control shocked my colleagues. Both of them turned on me like tigers. And then one of them said something very significant. He said "Britain's place is and always must be at the top table."


I'd like to say that I stuck to my guns, but I didn't. I could see the force of the top table argument. I believed it myself, at least in one sense. I could see Britain the ally of America giving it wise advice.

Britain, from the pinnacle of its long democratic history, talking to France and West Germany and pushing them in the right direction. And naturally Britain would be exerting a pervasive moral influence over the younger nations.

When I look back on the complacent ignorance of my views I shudder.

Now, I think we need to stop kidding ourselves about our role. In the real world we don't keep giving Washington advice that it takes. We aren't listened to attentively by France and Germany. And there isn't a long queue of countries lining up to receive our moral guidance.

To face these truths is neither unpatriotic, nor dispiriting. Our merits as a nation don't depend on dumping our armed forces down in small packets all over the Northern Hemisphere in deference to an antiquated world role.

All governments everywhere, good, bad and indifferent can't ignore the immense dangers of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in terrorist hands. This is where the demons lurk. This is the battle we'll have to try and win, working with any country who will help.

Mr Walden is right, foreign policy must change:- the "three circles" described by churchill as Britains foriegn policy objectives has moved on completly. The Soviets are gone, Europe has become a monilith of stagnation and united states has tilted toward the west or east depending how you look at it (Asia). The asian dragons and tigers will soon create powers if not superpowers. We are then relegated to the lower orders. The question is not a choice between europe or america, the answer may self relience and strategic diplomacy.
Andrew Jones, Huddersfield

It is true Britain no longer enjoys the immense world power it once did in the early part of the last century, but this article paints a far too pessimistic view. Much of America's moral standing in relation to the Iraq war lays with Britain's approval. Why is George Bush so keen to be associated with Blair? The idea our policies do not have much credence today is also not entirely true. Recently Bush has pledged to increase the budget for research into clean fuel by 22%. Ofcourse he would not admitt British policy forced his hand but could anyone deny the green policies Britain has been championing has not influenced him, like it has Russia, and many other major world powers? It is true Britain has lost its empire but we have not lost our ability to at least influence world policy just yet.
Daniel Wood, Birmingham

Brian Walden is typical of the wolly-headed thinker who believes that today's Britain resembles in any way our imperialist past. I cannot think of even one common ideology in favour today that supports a imperialistic agenda. He has been careful not to introduce tones of anti-americanism but Brian I hear them in the things you DON'T say. The fact is that Britain HAS moved on it's just sad that Mr Walden hasn't realised that yet.

Yet another reason for leaving the sceptered isle. It really is amazing however how many people I have met in Asia and (to a lesser extent) Africa still regard Britain and its way of acting as the pinnacle of morality. When the likes of Tony Blair hear these misguided opinions, they actually believe them.
Hutanbakau, Khon Kaen, Thailand

As usual, Brian Walden just doesn't get it. His problem, like so many defeatist politicians in the UK today, is that HE and his ilk do not know HOW to deploy our historical (and continuing) global experiences to the advantage of all. Instead, they retreat from the intellctual scene, content to wallow in their ignorance and to point their fingers at others.
Mark M. Newdick, US (UK expat)

I agree entirely. It's time British politicians and others come down to earth. Britain has an important role to play in world politics,but always listening to it's allies and not trying to impose it's opinions or ideas on them.
George N.Ackroyd, Ananindeua, Pará- Brazil

It's true that Britain's history as the centre of an Empire has given us an inflated sense of our own importance on the World stage. But it is also true at least as far as India is concerned, that when our ways parted in 1947, they did so on the best possible terms (unlike the French departure from Algeria, for example). The British legacy (in terms of the legal system and the English language) of that time should stand us in good stead with the rise of present-day India as an economic power.
Nigel Baldwin, Portsmouth UK

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