For those of us who watch politics for a living, recent years have not been short on surreal moments. But for reasons I cannot truly explain, there is one innocuous, and certainly forgotten one, that always returns to me. It was 11 February 2019. The then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, who had not yet been sacked for being a danger to national security, was giving a speech on Britain’s role in the world, and about halfway through, the following words exited his lips: “We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership.”
People, and in turn countries, are naturally blind to their own ridiculousness. How else could they get out of bed in the morning? At this point, Williamson would occasionally have calls and meetings with his counterpart in America, the four-star general, Jim Mattis. Prior to his appointment, Mattis had served as the supreme allied commander of Nato, and had been the head of the US Joint Forces Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gavin Williamson, at the time, had been working at a pottery company in Stoke, selling ceramic commemorative tableware of Charles and Camilla’s wedding.
And here we were, watching Gavin Williamson, a man who you absolutely would not trust to lead a group of schoolchildren across a busy road but who was nevertheless the actual defence secretary, and who a year ago had summoned the full weight of his statesmanship to tell Russia to shut up and go away, say with a straight face that it would soon be Britain who the world would turn to when it needed leadership. But this, alas, is what life has to be like now that Britain has been reborn as a fully deluded nation. And it was in this automatically absurd spirit that Boris Johnson launched his “integrated review” of the nation’s foreign policy priorities.
It began with a column in The Times, in which he could not resist repeating one of his favourite absurdities, that democracy and the rule of law and all the rest of it are British. (They’re not.) That wherever people are free and living under functional government, anywhere in the world, they must, somewhere in the back of their minds, be thanking Britain for it. (They’re not.)
With his very first words in the House of Commons, Johnson said the following: “The purpose of this review is to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous.” It is boring, but nonetheless accurate, to point out that both of his predecessors in the job campaigned against Brexit, and when they did so, explained how it would make the UK less safe, and less secure, which it now has done so. It has also, already, made the country not “more prosperous” but billions and billions and billions of pounds poorer. The grand, pontificating aspects of the job are self-evidently Johnson’s favourite, far more than the nitty gritty, like, say, dealing with a growing pandemic, which we now know he couldn’t be arsed to do, this time last year, the cost of which is arguably the highest the country has ever paid for anything.
For four years there was a howling mad, Brexit-loving lunatic in the White House, but those days are gone, a semblance of sanity has returned
It was only as recently as February of last year when he last gave a self-described big speech about Britain’s place in the world. His speech that day, as it happens, was wondrously prophetic. Back then, he explained how the world was “over-reacting” to “new diseases such as coROnavaaairus [the first time he ever said the word in public, he pronounced it in a funny way, for laughs]”. Other countries, we learned, were “going far beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage”. His conclusion was that meant the world needed a new hero, who wouldn’t be so stupid as to take this Covid-19 thing seriously.
We now know, of course, that that’s exactly what he did. True to his word, arguably for the very first time. According to an extremely well-informed article by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, it was at this point he was telling staff it “would be best to ignore it”. Which he did. And then he took it seriously for a bit. And then he carried on ignoring it. And now there are 130,000 people dead.
And this, really, is the problem. The world is not stupid. It can see and hear very clearly indeed exactly what Boris Johnson is, which is an idle chancer and systematic liar, and so it can see what little Britain has become. It is why, for example, as Johnson talks of the power of Britain’s alliances, he has to pretend that a former aide in the Obama/Biden White House didn’t very recently refer to Johnson himself as a “shapeshifting creep”.
Brexit Britain had its chance, for a while. For four years there was a howling mad, Brexit-loving lunatic in the White House, but those days are gone, a semblance of sanity has returned and little Britain is out on its own. That is the way of things. Brexit Britain’s “strategic priorities” in the coming years will not be decided by Britain, which has chosen to take the narrow road out into the cold, to be a bit-part player, for no greater reason than a sufficiently large proportion of its population was too insular, too xenophobic and too staggeringly small-minded to cope with the notion of too many foreigners coming over here.
Its only real priority, in the meantime, is to maintain the delusion that it has anything to offer a world that has moved on without it. There are no alternatives. Certainly not the truth.