When Martin Amis died last month, one name mentioned alongside his in every obituary was that of his lifelong friend, the patron saint of polemicists, Christopher Hitchens. In 1981, “Hitch” left the political paddling pool of Britain behind to swim with the West’s intellectual Olympians, eventually taking up US citizenship. Although he died in 2011 still describing himself as a Marxist, his embrace of interventionist foreign policy, particularly his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq, saw him labelled as a “neocon” by some. But while many of his positions aligned him with those on the conservative right, the twin themes of Hitchens’ writing, resolute antitheism, and the necessity of resistance to tyranny, never wavered. He was alive to the narcissistic allure of Donald Trump as early as 1999, and remained avowedly internationalist: had he survived a few years longer, he would have been appalled by Brexit, and felt no kinship with the “National Conservatives” intent on taking over the Tory party now.

Like Tony Blair – who was himself “Hitch-slapped” in a 2010 debate on the role of religion in politics – Hitchens’ never retracted his support for the invasion of Iraq. While that suggests his own streak of the absolutism for which he eviscerated others, the patent absurdity of such a position now also highlights the extent of the decline, over the decade or so since Hitchens’ death, in the idea of unilateral western supremacy being a sine qua non.

“Western”, of course, really means “US”. Since the end of the Second World War, Britain has consoled itself with its “special relationship” with America, albeit as its – in David Cameron’s words – “junior partner”.  What our political leaders often fail to grasp, or at least admit, but has always been apparent to Atlanticist intellectuals, is that while Brits focus on the partnership, it’s the “junior” aspect of the relationship that is uppermost in American minds. In his 2006 book, Blood, Class and Empire, Hitchens delighted in the irony of Britain having encouraged America’s imperial ambitions only to find herself usurped.  Ever since, the relevance of the UK in the western project has been measured by the level of its support for the US, whether in Europe, the Middle East, and more recently the Indo-Pacific (see Michael Burleigh,  Xi the Peacemaker).

Our loss of standing abroad reflects our deeper insecurities at home

The main yardstick has always been the degree of hard power we can apply to the battle at hand. In that department, Britain has only become more impotent since the long-term neglect of its armed forces was so visibly exposed in Helmand and Basra. It continues to constrain the commitment it can make to both Ukraine (see Simon Heffer, There’s no defence for cuts in military spending), and – thankfully – AUKUS. In office, Boris Johnson carried his Mini-Me-With-Hair impersonation of Trump only so far and enthusiastically auditioned for the role of Global Sheriff’s Sidekick, and his successors have followed suit. But even the UK’s soft-power utility to America has been compromised by its struggle to square the single-market circle in Northern Ireland, and by the extent of its trade dependence on China.

So with America dropping down the global weight-rankings, and with not just China and Russia but also India, Brazil and South Africa (once rather incongruously lumped together as BRICS) flexing their muscles both economically and politically (see Toby Green, Back to the future), it’s no wonder we’ve taken to staggering around the ring like a punch-drunk former heavyweight finally getting our comeuppance. Fixing this is comparatively easy, and it can become a strength. We need only to abandon ambitions to exercise military might abroad, and focus resolutely on defence. That’s not to say we should adopt a Trumpian isolationism, but rather limit our aid or – in extremis – involvement, to helping friends under attack, such as Ukraine, and refuse to become an active participant in any future “coalitions” of aggression.

Restoring our reputation and moral clout will take greater finesse. It involves recognising that our loss of standing abroad reflects our even deeper insecurities and divisions at home. As Green explains, our increasing domestic inequalities are a mirror image of the growing global divide between north and south. And last year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which introduced draconian anti-democratic measures – including the possibility of indefinite detention for creating a “public nuisance” – highlights the degree to which trust between people and politicians has broken down. It comes on top of the disproportionate impact on those already struggling to make ends meet from covid controls, the decline in NHS services, and spiralling food and energy prices. Even the governing Tory party – still in power with a large majority – has descended into factional farce.

This has left us, as Anjana Menon writes (Tech could reset UK links with India), as a nation “without a plan for itself”, let alone one for those we hope to influence. Before we take up Green’s suggestion of using our economic clout for more altruistic ends, or Menon’s of embracing our traditions of immigration, education and innovation to play a more positive role in world affairs, we must first decide what kind of a nation we want to be. To do that, we all need to climb out of our trenches and engage in a very different kind of national conversation to the one we’re having now.

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Columns, June 2023, Soapbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.