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Great Britain finds it is not feeling all that global right now

Humbled by a belligerent U.S. president, ignored in Asia and withdrawing from the European continent — Britain has been here before. In 1956. Back then the threat by Dwight Eisenhower to dump sterling in the financial markets forced a Conservative government into a humiliating retreat from the Suez Canal. It was the end of the U.K. as an imperial power with global pretensions, and in the decade that followed, the military and diplomatic infrastructure that had sustained those pretensions east of Suez was dismantled.

But if we had lost an empire, the crisis helped us to find a role — as a European power.

Subsequent Tory prime ministers understood what a mistake it had been for Britain to stay out of the creation of the then European Economic Community in the foolish belief that we could rely solely on our American alliance and our links with former colonial possessions. So in the years after Suez applications were made to join the EEC and eventually, in 1973, we were let in. Now, five decades later, we are trying to leave — and the politicians who championed Brexit, and those who embraced the referendum result, promise us a “global Britain” again, sustained by — wait for it — our alliance with the U.S. and a rejuvenated Commonwealth.

We have been reminded what a delusion that remains. The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as ambassador to the U.S. was inevitable once his private thoughts on the Trump administration were leaked. As a talented public servant, Kim understood that instantly — in a way that the harrumphing chorus in Westminster demanding he stay in post did not.

The blame for his fate lies less with President Trump — no one likes being called “inept” and any White House would have responded angrily, if not quite so colourfully, to such a leak — than with a riven and rudderless government at home that can’t keep anything secret.

But the episode has reminded us that, vital as the American alliance is, Britain will never be anything like an equal partner and will always, ultimately, be dispensable to it. We can and should forge new ties around the world. But even before the recent clash over Hong Kong, the “golden age” with China that the Cameron government carefully sponsored was already heavily tarnished by the May government’s mishandling of everything from nuclear power to gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea. Our history with India will forever remain as much an obstacle as an opportunity with that great power, while, for all the good it tries to do, the Commonwealth will never be more than a loose relationship between disparate countries.

The truth is that in 2019, as in 1956, Britain needs Europe — and yet the two people aspiring to be the next Tory prime minister are trying to outdo each other with their threats and insults to our near neighbours. Friendless in Brussels; unheard in Beijing; insulted in Washington — Britain doesn’t feel very global right now.

London Evening Standard,

July 11

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