Review: Philip Stephens, Britain Alone (2021)

How has Britain been defined by its relationship with the United States and Europe since the Second World War? How did the Suez Crisis in 1956 presage Britain’s reassessment of its place in the world, and how did this assessment change in the lead up to the 2016 referendum? These are the questions that Philip Stephens addresses in Britain Alone. Stephens offers a predominantly chronological assessment of Britain’s foreign policy, focused on how Britain has interacted with the United States and Europe since 1945. Stephens charts how Britain, following its victory in 1945, lost its Empire, and watched as the United States and the USSR became the predominant world powers. The loss of Britain’s ability to act with impunity in its own historic interests was demonstrated during the Suez Crisis, in which it was humiliated by the US, and alienated its French ally. Following Suez, Britain slowly realised that in order to retain its power, it had to magnify its influence through its alliances. This led to a development in its post-war relationship with the United States and Europe, where British politicians wrestled with their country’s self-image as an imperial power and the reality of its weak economy and diminished military. This struggle has defined Britain’s place in the world up to the Brexit vote. Stephens therefore presents a historical analysis of Brexit, rather than an analysis centred on factors such as demography, racism, political polarisation, Russian influence, and so on. As much as this might be interpreted as a history lesson, the history is moulded and politicised into an argument that says as much about the present day as it does about the past.

At the heart of this book is an argument, grounded in recent history, that Britain’s means to power and influence lies in taking its place in Europe in order to maximise its relationship with the United States. The key mistake of British foreign policy, as Stephens sees it, has been to treat these two relationships as separate. Stephens argues that the choice between Europe and the US, as it was presented to the public in 2016, and as it has been conceived by British politicians since 1956, is a false dichotomy: to choose Europe is to choose the US; to abandon Europe is to lose influence with the US. The other choice – turning towards the Commonwealth – is delusional. These Commonwealth countries, and especially those whose occupation under Britain led to a determined and reactive nationalism, will never again be an avenue for Britain to exercise its influence. Stephens charts how, by continuing to see itself as an imperial power even as its empire disintegrated, Britain missed out on taking a key role in the European Coal and Steel Community, later to become the European Economic Community. Britain might have seen itself as the natural leader of Europe, but its attitude was too transactional rather than cooperative; too intent on dividing the European nations rather than bringing them together. Britain too often treated European projects with scepticism and condescension, before finally admitting to their success, and unbecomingly scrambling to get on board. Later, when a part of the EEC and the EU, British politicians (some more than others) have been too adversarial, too quick to bring the confrontational politics of the Houses of Parliament to the compromise-based politics of Europe. Very few have seen the real value of the European project. This has led to a sea of division and debate that has marred Britain with Euroscepticism. Stephens’ place in this debate is made clear: for example, when addressing the notion of reclaiming sovereignty as a means to reclaim power, a key aim of British Eurosceptics, Stephens argues that this was foolish, for “an individual marooned on a desert island can claim absolute sovereignty, and yet the castaway is entirely powerless”. The book is thus a lament to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and therefore, in its misguided search to become ‘Global Britain’, to minimise its influence on the world stage.

Stephens writes with the ease of a seasoned professional. The book is paced very well, the argument is never laboured, and there is a measured eloquence to his writing. His analysis of events is clear: Stephens skilfully delineates competing interests within and between countries, identifying component parts without eroding their complexity. Throughout the book, Stephens explores individual interests within the British government, including the contributions of cabinet members, as well as officials in the US and Europe. Their judgement is weighed against public opinion, and the opinion of neighbouring governments. While largely chronological, each chapter explores a particular theme, and the exploration is consistently methodical. An emphasis throughout is on Britain’s economy, its financial position, and what this meant for its political influence and military power. Britain’s leaders are examined through the lens of their approach to foreign policy; none is treated with any particular love or emotion, and Stephens is suitably detached. The tone of the analysis shifts when it becomes clear that Stephens is drawing on his own observations, rather than singly on the observations of others. This means that Stephens is more forensic with later leaders: Margaret Thatcher is analysed in proportion to her influence, and Tony Blair is given an especially intimate dissection (reminiscent of Stephen’s earlier work on Blair). Indeed, the disappointment with Blair is palpable – so much potential was wasted by the decision to declare war on Iraq. Stephens observes how Blair “could have been remembered not as the prime minister too careless in going to war but as a peacemaker who brought to a close an ugly and seemingly intractable conflict” in Northern Ireland. This was written by someone who, at least for the latter half of the book, had a front row seat to many of the events discussed, and this certainly gives it added value.

Stephens is particularly critical of Britain’s foreign policy throughout. There are elements where he might have directed his criticisms elsewhere: de Gaulle’s obstinance is preventing Britain from joining the European club is glossed over (it might have been worth mentioning that not everything was Britain’s fault). This book is not a re-run of the 2016 debate – thankfully – but though it dismisses the call for a ‘Global Britain’, it is not an assessment on what that might mean. Africa is barely mentioned in this analysis, and little heed is paid to how Britain might manage China (except for an acknowledgement of David Cameron’s short-sighted subservience). I am no fan of the argument that those on the ‘Remain’ side should simply get over the vote, pull up their socks, and chip in to a project that they do not believe in, but at some point the losers of 2016 need to seize the initiative and start to explore what Britain’s place in the world might be. We have to make the best of what may well be a bad situation, because it is the situation we now find ourselves in. As interesting as it is to have recent memory written as if it happened thirty years ago, as Stephens begins to do towards the end of the book, one cannot simply adopt the linguistic style of a historian and write about 2020 as if the consequences are inevitable. Stephens writes, for example, that in 2020, “absent from the councils of Berlin, Brussels and Paris, the nation lost political and economic leverage in negotiating with the rest of the world”. But this is far from established, and Stephens writes with more certainty than the facts so far allow. This is a prediction; Britain is not diminished yet. In this way, Stephens, despite the quality of his analysis and the validity of his argument, has little vision for what the future may hold, treating the next thirty years as if they are already predetermined. Those who still hold out hope for the future might therefore find the last few pages to be a little demoralising. Those looking to understand Britain’s changing place in the post-war world will be well satisfied.

Philip Stephens, Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit (London: Faber, 2021), pp. 480.


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One thought on “Review: Philip Stephens, Britain Alone (2021)

  1. Pingback: Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland (2021) – Bucky's Book Reviews

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