Little England: Why the British election matters to the United States

Foreign elections don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. These days, particularly, we are a bit caught up in our own imminent presidential election—it is a mere 18 months away. And, honestly, from an American perspective, such elections tend to feature poor production values, mind-numbingly substantive debates, and endless banging on about pensions, health care, and other extremely parochial issues. But on May 7, there is an election in the United Kingdom that might just merit putting aside that latest exposé on Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle.

Why is the British election worth diverting ourselves from such weighty issues? Well, first, it’s in English (more or less) which makes it at least plausibly comprehensible for interested Americans. But perhaps more importantly, the British election will have important implications for the United States and may well be a harbinger of things to come.

The United Kingdom (U.K.) has long been the United States’ most stalwart and visible ally. Indeed, more than an ally, the United Kingdom became, in foreign policy terms, a sanity check. In the halcyon days of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the U.K. was the first place American policymakers went to understand how U.S. foreign policy would be received beyond their shores.  

The U.K. was never an American poodle, but it was fair to say that if you couldn’t sell a policy in Britain, it was unlikely to do well in France, India, or China. The U.K. was America’s most sympathetic critic, its most willing collaborator, and its most able partner. Indeed, it was the only large country in the European Union that maintained its defense spending at 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) as all NATO members are supposed to do.

The Little England strategy

Like so much of the post-Cold War world, all of that has been changing of late and particularly since David Cameron became prime minister five years ago. At that time, in the very depths of the financial crisis, Cameron adopted what is uncharitably called a “Little England” strategy. As part of an overall program of dramatic spending cuts, Cameron slashed military spending, cut the British diplomatic corps, and broadly began to pull back from all manner of overseas commitments (with the exception of development aid). He also allowed a referendum on Scottish independence that nearly broke apart the three hundred year-old United Kingdom and promised another referendum for his second term on whether the U.K. should remain in the European Union.  

In September 2013, Cameron couldn’t sell participation in U.S. air strikes in Syria to enough members of his own coalition to get approval from parliament. In retrospect, this embarrassing defeat represented his last gasp effort to demonstrate that the U.K.’s relationship with the United States remains special. When the U.S. intervention in Syria (and Iraq) did begin in August 2014, the U.K. was essentially absent. At this point, the U.K.’s best hope for maintaining its 2 percent of GDP defense spending commitment is that the government’s economic policies reduce its GDP.

This direction in British policy isn’t completely new or unexpected. Indeed, the novelist Julian Barnes predicted this slow stroll toward decline in his 2000 comedic novel “England, England.” “Britain,” Barnes noted, “had once held domination over great tracts of the world’s surface, painted it pink from pole to pole. As time went by, these imperial possessions had spun off and set themselves up as sovereign nations.  …  So where did that leave us now? With something called the United Kingdom which to be honest and facing facts, didn’t live up to its adjective. Its members were united in the way that tenants paying rent to the same landlord were united.” Barnes envisioned England separating itself from the rest of the United Kingdom, from Europe, and ultimately from the world. The result, in Barnes’ reading of the future, was that “England had cut its own throat and was lying in the gutter beneath a spectral gas-light, its only function as a dissuasive example to others.”

Of course, Barnes’ novel seemed meant more as a warning than a prediction. But to judge by the current government efforts, the prime minister seems to have adopted it as an instruction manual.  

It is not clear that a government led by Cameron’s principal opponent, Ed Miliband of the Labour Party would reverse this retreat. Devolution of course began under Labour, which may end up depending on the independence-minded Scottish National Party to govern. But Labour is at least solidly committed to maintaining the U.K. within the European Union and not ideologically opposed to any and all spending increases. The United Kingdom’s retreat from the world is largely voluntary—it has the resources to continue to punch above its weight for some time to come. Little England is the U.K.’s direction, but it is not its destiny.

But back to United States

It would be a mistake for Americans to assume that they have nothing at stake in the Little England strategy. Sure, the U.S.-U.K. relationship has been becoming less special for some time. And, yes, Germany carries more financial weight; France is increasingly interested in joining the United States in military adventures abroad, and the Australians seem willing to send Special Forces just about anywhere. But a Little England nevertheless does not augur well for a U.S. foreign policy which aims specifically to empower like-minded states to share the burdens of leadership. Ultimately, the United States will struggle to lead a more empowered group of regional powers if even the U.K. will not follow.