England’s spring of discontent

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak speaks during a pertu rally at the Amersham and Chiltern Rugby club, in Amersham as part of the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo: POOL/AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak speaks during a pertu rally at the Amersham and Chiltern Rugby club, in Amersham as part of the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo: POOL/AFP)

Summary

Britain must learn how to stay relevant in the post-imperial, post-Atlantic world.

In the UK, last week for the second annual London Defence Conference at King’s College, I was happy to see that climate change had not yet disrupted British weather. Tourists scurried miserably across the slippery streets, jackets buttoned against a cold London spring.

But the weather was warm and welcoming compared with the mood among Conservative Party members. The 14 years of Tory rule that began optimistically under David Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats is sputtering toward an end.

Beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stepped outside No. 10 into the pouring rain to announce the next general election on July 4. With Labour leading by an average of 23 points in the polls, few Tories expect another five years in power. So far, 78 Conservative members of Parliament have announced they won’t stand for re-election, beating the Tory retirement record set in 1997, the year Tony Blair swept John Major’s government from power.

But in London, more is afoot than a change in the political weather. Whether you meet with frustrated Tories or Labour grandees preparing for office, senior British politicians speak about cascading changes and rising instability around the world. They agree that Britain needs to spend more and engage more when it comes to the common defense, and they agree that traditional assumptions about Britain’s priorities and role in the world must be examined anew.

Labour officials understand that national security remains a key area of potential vulnerability for a party desperate to get out of the wilderness. Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, cultivates a pragmatic and sensible public persona, but voters remember the radical and erratic path down which his far-left predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, led the party four years ago.

To bury those ghosts, Labour leaders such as David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary and party spokesman on foreign affairs, have been engaging with American Republicans and conservatives including Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and James Risch of Idaho. They are saying polite things about Donald Trump and are reminding American audiences that past Labour leaders, from Clement Attlee to Mr. Blair, had been America’s closest allies and partners over the past 80 years.

The key point that Mr. Lammy and his colleagues repeatedly make is that Labour today understands the primacy of security. Labour, they insist, is committed to the common defense and will be a reliable and effective American partner come what may.

There are real questions about whether Mr. Starmer’s party can live up to this vision. Tory skeptics ask whether the anti-Semitism and anti-Western radicalism that so recently dominated the Labour Party have really disappeared. Others wonder whether the party’s commitment to increased defense spending will survive the pressures from public sector unions and other hungry constituent groups eager to divide up the spoils of power.

Whoever wins the July 4 election will face rough seas. The American alliance has been the cornerstone of British foreign policy since World War II, but U.S. policy is moving into a new phase. The rise of China continues to drive Americans to focus their efforts on the Indo-Pacific. Britain, with all the goodwill in the world, can’t play the kind of role in Pacific defense that it plays in Europe. Japan, Australia and India are likely to be more central to American thinking than Britain in coming years. Where will that leave the special relationship between Britain and the U.S.?

Part of the answer, my British friends in both parties tell me, involves Aukus, the trade and technology agreement among the U.S., Britain and Australia. It was originally conceived as a way to help Australia develop a stronger submarine fleet by pooling British and American technology. The agreement allows for much deeper tech cooperation among these countries and perhaps others such as Israel, India and Japan, while excluding China and Russia.

America’s need to reduce its commitment to Europe without abandoning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could also be an opportunity for Britain. Labour doesn’t plan to re-enter the European Union or the Single European Market, but it wants a better relationship with a bloc that remains Britain’s largest export market. Britain has already emerged as a leader on issues such as the war in Ukraine. A stronger British role in European defense could ease America’s global burdens while helping Britain develop a healthier post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Britain is coming to terms with a world in which India, China and Japan all matter more to world politics than the great powers of old. The U.K. still counts for something, but its political leaders have to think longer and harder than ever before about how to stay relevant in the post-imperial, post-Atlantic world.

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