On June 27th Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is slated to meet Britain ’s new Prime Minister David Cameron in Toronto on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. That proposed meeting has been preceded by warm vibes. Cameron has already announced intention of visiting India later this year. His party’s election manifesto stated that if elected Prime Minister Cameron would seek to build “a new special relationship” with India. If he does this he will get full support from the opposition. Former Labour’s foreign secretary and strong aspirant for Labour leadership David Miliband urged the new David Cameron-led government to further strengthen bilateral ties with India which “had never been better than under the Labour government”. Mr. Miliband said: “I want to see the links between Britain and India strengthened properly.”
Ah, but what is “properly”? Are Britain ’s new young leaders simply playing with words or do they really mean business? In diplomatic parlance it suffices to speak of closer ties or strengthening ties. A special relationship? One rarely sees that. Britain and America had a special relationship once. I don’t know how much of it survives. And thereby hangs a tale. It should be instructive for Cameron and company to recall the post World-War II British foreign policy. And there is nothing better to stimulate memories of that than what happened in London on June 18th.
On June 18th Britain and France commemorated the seventieth anniversary of De Gaulle’s Second World War speech made over radio from London announcing French resistance to Nazi Germany. To celebrate the event President Sarkozi flew in from France. There were nostalgic articles in the media. An article in London’s Guardian recalled the very divergent legacies of Churchill and De Gaulle. The writer hoped that the differences now would be bridged. Fat chance! And that’s what brings one to the nub of the problem. What follows is very much an Indian view of British foreign policy after World War II, and where it went horribly wrong.
After the Second World War the Empire on which the sun never set was reduced to an impoverished nation playing second fiddle to America. In the pursuit of perceived national interest Britain performed hasty patch-work solutions before it departed from India. Undivided India had been considered as the jewel in the British crown. The need for economic revival after the war made corporate finance more than ever powerful. Its focus shifted from London to Wall Street. Corporate finance that created the current global economic crisis, dominates the world’s mainstream media, subverts democracy, distorts globalization, and ruined the purpose of the European Union (EU) inevitably played the dominant role in Britain. It impelled wrong foreign policy choices in Whitehall.
Post World-War II Britain held three cards in its hands. There was the special Anglo-American relationship, the emerging European Community, and the Commonwealth. Britain’s special relationship with America and the Commonwealth were not only compatible but complementary. Britain ’s entry into the EU was incompatible with both. The very inspiration of EU should have alerted Britain that joining it would be the wrong choice. De Gaulle is acknowledged as the political architect of EU. What motivated De Gaulle most to achieve diplomatically what Napoleon had failed to do militarily was the special Anglo-American relationship. He sought a European identity that could dictate affairs alongside America. Britain as middleman between Europe and America was not wanted. Moreover Britain was Anglican, Europe was Catholic. Religion may not denote religiosity among people. It does define identity. De Gaulle opposed Britain’s entry into EU in 1963 and then again in 1967. He retired in 1968. Britain entered EU in 1973. The anti-British bias in France did not disappear with the exit of De Gaulle. Just six months ago France summoned a meeting of senior ministers from 22 European states to rethink EU's Common Agricultural Policy. However Britain was not invited. This was done by the same President Sarkozi who made all the right noises on June 18th in London!
Only people living in multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic India can appreciate the importance of identity in politics. For people in the west the impulse of religious identity is submerged in the subconscious. But it is very much there. Otherwise how might one explain Catholic Ireland despite sharing language and literature with England remaining neutral during Second World War even when Britain was mercilessly bombed? Or why Protestant Northern Ireland could not remain in Catholic Ireland?
In Europe Britain will always remain a second class power. The concept of EU itself has been ruined by corporate finance. In search of expanding markets big business mindlessly enlarged the membership of EU far beyond the first 15 nations that originally founded it. The original 15 nations had shared history and common culture. The creation of a cultural block of nations retaining separate sovereignties was a giant step towards creating a democratic federal new world order. Big business ruined that by sacrificing political cultural identity at the altar of corporate greed. It concentrated on expanding markets. That brought about over-centralization in the emerging global system. It diluted cultural identity to almost zero point. That is why EU is in crisis.
The Commonwealth can achieve what EU did not. Britain’s special relationship with America would flourish if London acted as the interlocutor between Washington and South Asia. Britain can do that by achieving the full potential of the Commonwealth on which it virtually turned its back. The shared history between Britain and all the South Asian nations is a foundation on which an economic and mutual defence community can be built. South Asia is bedeviled by problems that were created by the British. Whether it is the Durand Line or the Radcliffe Award, the resultant problems can best be addressed by Britain which created them. Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asia. Britain is best suited to help establish a genuine consensus regime in Kabul that cooperates in giving access to Central Asian energy to all nations. The ham handed US effort to install a puppet regime through military action will not succeed.
To attempt reviving the Commonwealth in a new avatar would be a huge paradigm shift for Britain. It would require a calibrated approach to disengage from Europe and fully involve in South Asia. Only by doing that would a genuine “new special relationship” with India be forged. But are the young leaders of Britain on the flying trapeze daring enough to swing that far?