Can I have the car, dad?

One of the most depressing aspects of the vote last week by British parliamentarians against an attack on Syria was the accusation from some quarters that this means that Britain is no longer a Great Power. It’s a strange conception of Great Power status that makes it dependent on blindly following the lead of another country. But then that’s just another bizarre turn in a story which seems to become more surreal by the day.
There was a time when a policy of alliance with United States probably seemed quite sensible for Britain, even if the relationship was never an equal one. In the 1940s and 1950s Britain still had a worldwide empire, a network of military bases all over the world, large armed forces and a substantial national defence science and technology program. All of these are now gone. The benefits that still flow from this relationship, especially in what are rather coyly called  “strategic technologies,” no longer really seen to be advantages,so much as burdens. It is fear of losing access to them that makes Whitehall officials wake up at night sweating. There was a time when Britain might have pursued a more independent path, as France did, but this required a level of investment which the British were never prepared to make. As befits a nation of shopkeepers, they chose the cheapest solution, which almost always involved being fundamentally dependent on the United States. So it’s all very well having your own warhead and guidance systems for nuclear weapons, but you still need somebody else’s missile to get them anywhere. And if the Americans ever decide to stop renting missiles to the British, the latter will really be stuffed, as much politically as militarily.
It’s this fear of strategic vulnerability, and the fact that Britain really has no security policy left now, other than trying to influence the United States, that explains a great deal of the nervousness and even hysteria of the last few days. Suppose the Americans decide to retaliate by cutting off our access to certain technologies? What will we do then?
Ultimately the concept of a Great Power is anachronistic: there are none these days, at least in the traditional sense. But there is respect for nations which can act independently, and the British can no longer do that, because their status in the world is essentially borrowed . They are like a young man who borrows his father’s flashy car to impress his friends, but has to watch his behaviour in case his father ever says No. A genuinely independent British security policy, cooperating with allies intelligently rather than blindly, was possible until about a generation ago, but that time is long gone. Oh well. Can I have the car, dad?

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