The 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns was perhaps the most gifted wordsmith of his age. Every foreign minister should ponder one of his lines: “Oh, would some Power give us the gift/To see ourselves as others see us!”
When I picture how others see Britain right now, I suspect old friends are shaking puzzled heads. The clash and thunder over Brexit is not an appealing spectacle. Some may feel that British politicians are acting out ‘Monty Python’ sketches in real life.
So please put aside the doom-laden commentary and accept my assurance: We British are neither abandoning our neighbours nor retreating from the world. We have not taken leave of our senses.
True, our Parliament can be exasperating. But in a democracy, that is also its job. The mother of parliaments is proud, fiercely independent and sovereign. If the British government must fight for every vote on something as crucial as our country’s place in Europe, that is as it should be. If we lose sometimes, that, too, is democracy. For all the pressure it puts on me personally, I take pride in answering to a Parliament that is impossible to suborn.
A picture of resilience
In some countries, disputes of this kind might spill violently into the streets. In Britain, our national debate on Brexit has been contained within our democratic institutions. We have been through worse — the repeal of the Corn Laws, for instance, poisoned British politics for a generation after 1846. We have also shown resilience in the most supreme of tests — maintaining parliamentary democracy and removing a respected prime minister even as the country fought for its life during the Second World War. Having survived such tests, British institutions will overcome this one, too.
Look beneath the surface and Britain’s international position remains unchanged. The United Kingdom is a small archipelago, with rather less than 1 per cent is of the world’s population. Alongside the United States, we have done more to shape the world we live in than any other country and remain in the global top five of most important leagues.
We have the fifth-largest economy in the world, the No 1 financial centre in our hemisphere and the second-largest military budget in Nato.
We reliably supply three of the world’s top 10 universities in surveys and are often ranked at or near the top for “soft power.” And we continue to rank the highest or near it for business-friendliness.
Don’t forget that Britain also possesses a nuclear deterrent, globally deployable armed forces and aircraft carriers. We’ve been with the United States in Afghanistan from the beginning in 2001; our servicemen and women have helped take apart Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Middle East) in the Middle East.
And we do more for European security than any of our neighbours. Right now, British soldiers make up the single largest contingent of Nato’s deployment in Poland and the Baltic states.
Unconditional commitment to Nato
It might seem odd that we are protecting these European Union (EU) members in the middle of Brexit negotiations. In truth, it’s entirely logical. Britain is leaving the structures of the EU, which we joined as recently as 1973, as that organisation moves from economic cooperation to political union. But our unconditional commitment to the security of our continent long predates our EU membership and will not waver after we leave.
In fact, one of the few things that unites British politicians of all parties and our European counterparts is that we plan to work hand-in-glove on foreign and security policy after Brexit. Our vital interests and values are going to stay aligned.
So once Brexit has happened, be in no doubt that Britain will retain all the capabilities of a global power. Our worldwide network of alliances and friendships places Britain among the handful of countries with genuinely global reach. We want to put it at the service of our democratic values.
As the country steps up to its global destiny, I follow in a remarkable tradition. The first foreign secretary, Charles James Fox, abolished the slave trade. Another, George Canning, reshaped South America by helping its countries to achieve independence.
Outside my office stands a bust of Ernest Bevin, who was an architect of Nato exactly 70 years ago and arguably did as much for European security as any other post-war European politician. Bevin also ensured that Britain stayed out of the supranational body that came before the EU. He saw no contradiction between those two positions — and he was right.
Britain has been shaping the world for centuries, and we’re here to stay.
— Washington Post
Jeremy Hunt is the UK’s secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs.