Britain Alone by Philip Stephens (Faber & Faber), £18.29
Philip Stephens, the distinguished Financial Times columnist, surveys Britain’s recent history from Suez to Brexit in his new book Britain Alone, an account of the country navigating the post-World War era.
The book is a familiar account of the period, covering everything from Britain being militarily victorious, economically broken, politically eclipsed by the United States, humiliated by the Suez misadventure, staggering along until eventually admitted to the European family of nations, sucking up to whoever occupied the White House right up until turning our backs ungratefully on our friends and allies on the continent. Leaving us, as they say, somewhat betwixt and between, outside any significant international trading bloc.
Stephens is an exponent of the Big Cheese school of history. For him, it is all about the small groups he knows who are in charge of running things. He can’t resist telling us who he has spoken to, which insider says what is behind this or that closed door. It certainly provides a fascinating insight into the period – if you are solely focussed on big cheeses, because this is a book by a supposed big cheese about big cheeses. The rest of us seem to be mere onlookers. Spectators while our betters move about the business of governing.
Stephens is not an impartial chronicler. He has a view, held with integrity, but it is a disappointingly unbalanced view. It is summed up in the Dean Acheson phrase of Britain being a country that had lost an empire but was yet to find a role. It is that struggle which pre-occupies the book. Stephens is clearly of the view that Britain is currently struggling in vain in this regard, post-Brexit.
There are two significant unaddressed issues in this book. First, although the United States displaced Britain from its role as the world’s dominant power, as a country the US has struggled to find a confident, settled sense of itself.
Britain’s leaders may or may not have been struggling to have their voice heard on the world stage, but the British people retain a sense of who we are and what we want. This sense continuously evolves in scrappy debate and unsettled politics. Why are Britain’s leadership class apparently so preoccupied with a “role” when Britons seem not all that bothered?
Secondly, throughout the book, I longed for some sense that ordinary people mattered, but nowhere did I find it. For over four decades, Britain tried membership of the European project, and in the end, we found, on balance, we did not like it.
That may be inconvenient for international diplomats and the big cheeses such as Stephens, but it is a democratic expression of national will. In the end, it boils down to one simple thing – what is the country there to do, to be? Is it to provide a platform for those we elect to roam the world stage meddling and interfering in the affairs of others? Or, is it primarily there to provide a peaceful and prosperous environment for its people to live and work?
Of course, a balance needs to be struck between the two. But the Stephens account is skewed too far in one direction at the expense of the other.