Spitfires and Hurricanes soared over London on Sunday in a reminder of heroic days 80 years ago, when an embattled United Kingdom stood as Europe’s last bulwark against Nazism.
The now-iconic World War II fighters handed Hitler his first strategic defeat. Success in the Battle of Britain and resultant control of the clouds fortified the “Last Hope Island” against invasion. As Hitler turned his war machine east the following year, the UK would provide a beacon of hope and a base of support for resistance movements across the continent.
By 1944, the military-industrial might of the Anglosphere was massed in the UK. British ports and airfields provided the jumping-off point for a democratic invasion force as troops from Canada, the US and the UK bounced the Channel and stormed into Normandy to liberate Western Europe.
But the London that the RAF fighters overflew on Sunday was silent in a way that the great capital of a once-formidable nation never was – even at the height of World War II. That is a result of Covid-19 or, rather, the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic.
More widely, today’s UK faces a perfect storm of perils – health, economic, political and constitutional. The situation is, arguably, more challenging than any faced by Britain since 1940, when the nation battled for its life.
These storm clouds are converging as the leadership in London – a leadership that, in 1940 stood defiantly at the epicenter of global affairs – lurches from crisis to crisis, lacking any vision for a sunnier national future.
In 1940, and in many years since, Britons could look across the Channel at their continental neighbors with sorrow, pity and a sense of superiority: “The Europeans have ballsed it up. Leave it to the cool heads and strong hands in Westminster to manage affairs properly.”
That belief no longer exists, or it if does persist in some corner of “Little England,” it is woefully at odds with facts.
Take former World War II enemy, Germany. It not only boasts a bigger and more diversified economy than the UK, its football team regularly thrashes England and Berlin has handled Covid-19 far better than London.
The UK, with a mid-sized population of 66 million has suffered 41,877 Covid deaths. That is the fifth highest number of Covid deaths globally, after demographic giants the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. It is also more than any other EU nation and well north of Germany’s 9,400 dead from a population of 83 million.
This is not just a tragedy for tens of thousands of families who have lost loved ones. It is a humiliation. The UK has failed abysmally in an area – health services and policies – which it customarily considers a core national competency.
London proved unable to supply health workers with PPE, to generate sufficient testing capacity – even to create a contact-tracing app that worked.
Now the virus is resurging, the idea bank is empty. London is reportedly considering re-instituting lockdowns. The point? Unclear. Lockdowns were a draconian measure to prevent hospitals from being overrun. That does not, now, look likely. But there is no other strategy.
Lockdown would further spank a sinking economy forecast to shrink by a gob-smacking 10.1% in 2020 (compared to the Eurozone’s -7.9% as per the OECD GDP forecast for this year. Next year, once the UK has actually Brexited, it is set to compress by a further 7.6% (compared to the EU’s -5.1%).
UK incompetence, EU disaster, US anger
Belatedly, the UK joined a French-German dominated proto-EU, the European Economic Union, in 1973. It was never an easy match. Always defiant and often a filibuster in Brussels, the UK’s relationship to the EU ended following the shock result of an unnecessary referendum in 2016.
There has been suspicion in some quarters that London’s Conservative Party leadership was never negotiating Brexit in good faith – that its real hope was for a nihilistic, no-deal departure. Given the UK’s current, hardline negotiating stance and self-set deadline, this belief seems borne out.
Now, an increasingly hapless-looking Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trapped in a conundrum of his own making.
On the one hand, his policies seek to secure post-Brexit UK as a sovereign, single-Customs zone. On the other, he seeks a free trade agreement, or FTA, with the United States to make up for the lost economic opportunities Brit firms will face after departure from the EU.
But his proposal to secure an internally borderless UK potentially contravenes the first-stage Brexit deal Johnson’s government signed with Brussels last October. Not only does this about-face besmirch the UK’s brand as a trustworthy player, it could fracture the 1998 “Good Friday” agreement that ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland.
This has caused rumbles across the Atlantic. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden made clear this week that if the UK endangers the Good Friday agreement, an FTA with the US is off the table. Even if Biden loses in November, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that she will not let a UK-US FTA pass the house if it endangers Good Friday.
The ability to freely sign FTAs with global players was the only positive reason with which thinking Conservatives justified Brexit. Those same Conservatives prioritize ties with America over ties with Europe.
On present form, London is not only going to delink from Brussels, it may very well poison relations with Washington; a lose-lose.
Meanwhile, HSBC, a flagship company in the UK’s flagship sector – finance – is in a crisis as its stock plummets to 1995 levels.
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that the bank’s compliance was woeful and that HSBC may have shifted over a billion dollars in criminal cash. The fallout remains to be seen but US regulators are likely to pounce upon HSBC, which, in 2012, paid a record fine on similar charges.
That could thrust a further wedge between London and Washington. The situation also casts shadows over British officialdom’s dreams of re-electrifying the City of London’s service sector with post-Brexit deregulation, enabling eased transactions and a more free-wheeling environment.
Meanwhile, institutions based in the City of London – a key economic locomotive for the UK – are set to lose “passport” rights, permitting them to bank across the continent. Competing European jurisdictions have made clear their plans to tear chunks out of London’s pie, post-Brexit.
Johnson’s pathetic Covid response and Brexit are handing Scots nationalists reasons again to demand withdrawal from the UK.
The 2014 independence referendum was vaguely premised on ending the debate for a generation. However, Edinburgh’s independence genie – re-energized by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, which dismayed pro-EU Scotland – cannot be shoved back into the bottle.
Hands in Westminster may thump tables, but it is impossible for any reasonable democracy – if the UK so remains – to deny the will of a people. Absent some unexpected development it seems more likely than not that, within this generation, Scotland will secede.
Even the closest institution the UK has to Hollywood faces threats to its brand and its relevance and its future.
The Royal Family won massive kudos when its most popular male member married a black American. The good vibes did not last. Amid allegations of racism and snobbery, Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markel carried out their own secession plan. Their future is now tied to California, not the United Kingdom.
But more worryingly than all the above is any lack of a post-Brexit national vision.
A series of hoped-for FTAs with such nations as the US, Australia and India will take years to negotiate, sign and implement. Even that daunting task represents, at best, a limited strategy.
While it addresses economic jitters, it does little to increase the UK’s diplomatic clout and nothing to power up its global security posture. It is hardly promising enough to compel Scots or Northern Irish to retain Her Majesty’s passports.
A more ambitious, expansive vision is needed. Could a future-facing UK formulate and position itself at the heart of a new Anglosphere alliance – a combined free trade zone and security arrangement?
An Anglosphere grouping of like-minded, multicultural nations would share a common language, the Common Law legal system and democratic ideals. The obvious rump members, as proposed by British historian Andrew Roberts, would be CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK).
But against a backdrop of Islamic fundamentalism, an ambitious China, an expanding Russo-Sino partnership and the rise of emergent players like Iran and Turkey, there are reasons to think bigger.
Why not expand the concept to encompass the United States? And in a post-colonial world why not invite India and even non-Anglosphere democracy Japan to join?
Call it, if you will, CANZUKIJUS (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India, Japan and the US). It is both a lexical mouthful and a hugely ambitious concept.
But such a broad, powerful alliance is promising. It would more than counter various global threats strategically, while counter-balancing – and arguably, complementing – the EU economically.
Various imperatives compel it.
The US, while divided and chaotic at home, has obvious – albeit, heavily tarnished credentials – as the free world’s leader. Brussels does not.
India faces similar security challenges – Islamic terrorism and a rising China – to the West, and an India-UK FTA is being discussed. Meanwhile, Shinzo Abe-era Japan actively sought FTAs and security agreements with like-minded nations – policies expected to be followed by his successor, new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
And precedents for CANZUKIJUS already exist in a web of formal, semi-formal and upcoming arrangements.
CANZUK and the US are on-page via the increasingly important “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangement. Australia, India, Japan and the US form the nascent “Quad” security alliance covering Indo-Pacific. Japan seeks membership in the “Five Eyes.”
The UK is negotiating an FTA with Japan and may seek membership in the Tokyo-led multilateral TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Not only are the shared interests multiple, the alliance would fill multiple holes.
The EU lacks military punch. NATO does not but its geographic reach is limited. A geographically diverse, democratically underwritten security architecture could dominate battlescapes from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Economically, the benefits of such a vast trade zone are clear. It would weld together economies that are both complimentary and competitive and that boast abundant natural resources, world-class services and manufacturing and a colossal consumer populace.
For a battered, faltering UK, a London-headquartered CANZUKIJUS would provide a new anchor while upgrading its international relevance.
But does today’s British leadership have the intellectual ambition, political vision and diplomatic muscle to get such a vast and promising undertaking underway, either in whole or in part?
Mired in multiple crises – mostly of its own making, and all of which look set to worsen in the near- and mid-terms – the answer must be “Probably not.”
That response contrasts depressingly with the spirit that animated the British government eight decades ago when the nation fought for its life in its “Finest Hour.”
Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor