Adam Harrison argues that while there are needles in David Owen and David Ludlow’s haystack, they are hard to find
Britain’s future beyond March 2019 remains deeply unclear. So we should welcome those who make a serious effort to chart a way ahead. Former foreign secretary David Owen and former diplomat David Ludlow – a ‘Leaver’ and ‘Remainer’ respectively – have done just that.
Unfortunately, while there are needles in this haystack, they are hard to find. This is a shame; the authors’ sincere respect for the legacy of history pulsates through this book, but the detail quickly becomes cloying and distracting. I am not convinced, for example, that the book’s argument benefitted from a potted biography of Leonid Brezhnev. A later chapter lurches from regime change in Libya on one page to the ‘Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Sea’ on the next. Lists and facts, such as the full membership of the National Security Council, would be better relegated to an appendix.
But if it were clearer, what would the book’s argument be? The authors’ lodestar is Henry Kissinger’s view of Brexit, shared privately with Owen shortly before the Brexit vote: ‘I do not want a world in which there is not an independent British voice.’
Unfortunately, what ‘independence’ means is not spelled out. The United Nations and Nato are to be key pillars, but concrete proposals are few. One is expanded permanent membership of the UN Security Council. But the authors do not show how this would increase Britain’s independence, nor how we would secure such a big change. And although the chapter on the UN rightly emphasises the centrality of human rights, it then fails to even mention the Human Rights Council. In fact, Britain’s proposed future reliance on the hulking UN is rather unnerving, as it suggests a reduced, rather than expanded, menu of international options.
In the past, Britain in Kosovo, say, appeared free enough. If the government does pursue the glow of ‘independence’, it will be more shooting star than lodestar. So we in Labour should have something to say in response. As Hugh Gaitskell, quoted in the book, said of Britain’s previous opposite trajectory, ‘[i]t may be a good thing or a bad thing but we must recognise that this is so.’
A post-Brexit future is almost inevitably ‘so’, now, and is up to us to shape. But it does not follow that ‘independent’ means ‘not Europe’. Indeed, true independence would mean we are free to choose to stick very close to the European Union, such as under the plan of former Macron adviser Jean Pisani-Ferry for a ‘continental partnership’. The authors dismiss his thoughtful proposal on the grounds that Britain is ‘not part of continental Europe’. Such reasoning is risible and should have no place in a serious book.
The thread running through much Brexiter argument, even those making a stab of it, is that Britain’s history and geography are laws directing it to places far away. But being bound by some sort of innate destiny is no independence at all. Sidelining Europe in our future foreign policy will cause this thread to fray. And, like the patience of the public, who expect more from this adventure, it will eventually snap.
Adam Harrison is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. He tweets at @AdamDKHarrison
British Foreign Policy After Brexit by David Ludlow and David Owen
Biteback Publishing | 356pp | £12.99