Home alone: The UK’s foreign policy after Brexit

The UK appears to have gone full circle in its approach to the rest of the world – and to have found no answers along the way

By the end of Philip Stephens’s new and fascinating book, Britain Alone, one feels forced to conclude, wistfully, that its subtitle – The Path from Suez to Brexit – describes less a linear journey in time and more a circumnavigation. Stephens masterfully describes a path, travelled by successive British governments, that curves as the reader progresses. One is given the feeling of watching the United Kingdom complete a circle that leaves it once again faced by the reality described by US secretary of state Dean Acheson in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.

If the 1956 Suez crisis confronted Britain with its loss of status as a global power, Brexit has brought the country back to both a foundational state in terms of its foreign policy and an existential one in terms of seeking a new identity. From Suez to Brexit, and back again, international observers might say of how the UK has squandered its successful international position, achieved after demonstrating real effort and pragmatism in the six decades since Suez. This is not to overstate the achievements of British foreign policy during this time, but, equally, the result of these diplomatic efforts was to anchor the UK firmly and very comfortably in two spaces essential to its global projection: the United States and Europe.

As Stephens narrates, after Suez the UK sought refuge in building two special relationships: one with Washington and the other with Brussels. The former allowed it to become a geopolitical shield-bearer for the US and, in return, to foster the illusion of having the kind of strategic autonomy that an independent nuclear deterrent capability provides – even if, in reality, it lacked meaning and credibility without the consent of Washington. Added to that nuclear capability was the presence of US bases in Britain, intelligence sharing between their secret services, a seat with the power of veto on the United Nations Security Council, and the deployment of the British army in all strategically significant scenarios, from West Germany during the cold war to the first and second Iraq wars. All this allowed London to flaunt its special relationship, no matter how much the very same Acheson instructed his diplomats never to make public reference to it and risk alienating other US partners.

A similar dynamic was at play in the UK’s relationship with continental Europe. Here too the pragmatism and know-how of British diplomacy managed to make a virtue out of necessity. When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973 it, in many ways, signified that the British government recognised its immense double failure: the first, an internal failure embodied in the dilapidated state of the British economy of the early 1970s; the second, an external one, exposed  by the unviability of the alternative integration process led by London in the form of the European Free Trade Association. Joining the European project meant Britain had turned these failures into an advantageous and privileged à la carte relationship with the EU – one that that no other country has ever come close to imitating.

Once it had overcome earlier French opposition to British membership, the UK became a partner with the remarkable capacity of being able to lead in Europe from an eccentric position – also, when necessary, with the use of its veto. Stephens tracks how, despite the enormous political and character differences between them, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair all understood that British influence in the world, and especially in the eyes of Washington, was intimately linked to membership. Sometimes this was done in good faith, playing the role of a pragmatic Briton reminding the rest of the Europeans of the limits of their federal dreams; others as a Trojan horse aiming to slow the progress of European integration, especially in defence policy, or simply to divide, as with the second Iraq war. Either way, the UK became a central actor and a valuable ally for Washington.

That unique position made the rude awakening of the Brexit referendum all the more painful, when London was not awarded a renewed ‘special relationship’, even though Donald Trump was enamoured of the idea of the EU breaking up. That United Kingdom Independence party leader Nigel Farage indulged in such fantasies might be understandable given his petty English nationalist creed, but Conservative leaders David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson all forgot the lessons their forebears had learned, and they overlooked the limited strategic value of Brexit in Washington’s eyes. This explains the harshness – merciless but justified – with which Stephens portrays the role of Cameron, the architect of the destruction of everything achieved since 1973. One of the former prime minister’s own erstwhile advisers cruelly portrays him as someone who thinks that “the world is that place you go to on your summer holiday.”*

Cameron made the reckless decision to have the British public vote to resolve his own party’s dispute over Europe. But this pitted outspoken Europhobes against pragmatic Eurosceptics (and lukewarm Europhiles), and so would never have silenced the dissidents for long. The UK’s approach can be compared to the passage from Alice in Wonderland in which Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which way to go. When the cat responds by saying “that depends a good deal on where you want to get to” and Alice admits that “I don’t much care where,” the cat gives his answer: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair all understood that British influence in the world was intimately linked to EU membership

If one of Britain’s most famous contributions to foreign policy is Lord Palmerston’s 1848 reflection that his country had no “eternal allies, only eternal interests”, the post-Brexit world shows that the UK has run out of eternal allies without having safeguarded anything remotely close to eternal interests. When the Biden administration seeks to rebuild US international alliances to face the Chinese challenge and contain Vladimir Putin, the UK appears more confused than ever about what it wants and who it wants to work with.

Britain positions itself as a champion of free trade capable of connecting global markets – but it is doing so at a time when free trade agreements are no longer a strong vehicle for exercising global leadership. The possibility of being an international financial centre, a kind of Singapore in the Atlantic, requires a globalisation that has long been subject to a process of disintegration, fractured by geopolitical pressures. At the same time, the UK has just presented a new foreign and security policy strategy in which it proposes an ambitious military rearmament programme whose key elements are to restore naval combat groups based on aircraft carriers and to modernise its nuclear arsenal and submarines – but without specifying what these very expensive capacities are necessary for and according to what strategy they will be used. Britain seems to want to believe, against all evidence, that it can measure up to China and Russia with a genuine deterrent, yet at home the Brexit fallout could destabilise Northern Ireland and bring about a second Scottish referendum that heralds the end of the UK.

From Stephens’s portrait it is clear that it is not the Royal Navy or the City of London financial centre that are the losers from Brexit – indeed, they could even be the winners – but rather the British political system, shaken to the core by Brexit. At the turn of the twentieth century, one in four of the planet’s inhabitants lived under the British Empire. Now, the UK might not even be able to govern itself. Britain lost an empire, yes, but the role it seems to have found is that of Sisyphus, condemned to return to the starting point again and again, and to rediscover that in order to command the waves as described in the patriotic song Rule Britannia, it is necessary to be anchored both to Washington and Brussels. Some may still yearn for empire, but, reading Stephens’s book, what we long for is British pragmatism.

* Original quote found in Stephens’s book, Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.