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Artillery Row

The narcissism of the centrists

Why we should care less about Britain’s international standing

Sometimes, self-criticism is as narcissistic as self-flattery. Who is the focus in both cases? Oneself. 

British centrists and left-wingers have a nasty habit of epitomising this. Of course, they have no time for people who think that Britain is exceptional in a positive sense. They are among the first people to launch into tedious and point-missing speeches about how Britain would have lost World War Two without the USA and the Soviet Union, and about how St George was not actually an Englishman, and about how fish and chips was really invented in Portugal.

But they often think that Britain is exceptionally bad. We heard endless complaints after the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union about how Britain was the “laughing stock” of Europe (I live on the continent and most people were not especially interested — having, after all, their own national problems to think about). We heard during COVID that Britain was “Rainy Plague Island” (British mortality rates only just cracked Europe’s top twenty in the end). Again, it’s pure narcissism — mingled with the smugness of the man or woman who is desperate to distinguish themselves from the herd.

A cousin of this line of thought is the obsession with Britain’s “international standing”. You can’t come up with a policy in Britain without the centre-left and centre-right politerati wondering what the world is going to think about it. Such politicians and commentators often sound like teenagers who are consumed with neuroses about what people are going to think of their new jeans. The teenagers have an excuse — they are teenagers. But the centrists sound pathetic.

Of course, Britain’s international reputation is not a complete irrelevance. If the country wants to strike trade deals, join alliances, attract tourists et cetera people have to like it (or, at least, have to like something that it has to offer). But this can’t explain the frantic preoccupation with the subject, which assumes both that it should be the dominant factor in decision-making and that it is acutely sensitive to damage.

The idea of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, Tobias Ellwood MP decrees, is “damaging our international standing”. Look, we can agree or disagree on the question of whether the ECHR is good for Britain. But that is the most important question here, no? Is the government signed up to international agreements for the sake of British citizens — not entirely, perhaps, in some cases, but mostly — or for the sake of its nebulous global image? What is the point of Britain’s “international standing”, in other words, if it holds back Britain?

Besides, just how closely are people paying attention to what Britain does and doesn’t do? In the halls of Washington DC, Brussels and Beijing, were people really spending hours lamenting, for example, Britain’s decision to cut its aid budget from 0.7 per cent of its Gross National Income to 0.5? Again, you could make a case for higher spending on foreign aid. You could make a moral case, based on the lives that it affects, or even a pragmatic case, based on the potential shared benefits of helping nations to develop. But when Theresa May insisted that the cuts would lower “our credibility in the eyes of the world” it sounded limp — limp because “the world” just doesn’t care that much about the intricacies of British spending and limp because it misunderstood what “credibility” on the world stage even means. The USA and China have credibility — not because they are nice, though, but because they are powerful. That doesn’t mean that Britain shouldn’t do good things, of course — it just means that we should not misunderstand what it takes to be respected.

Sadly, such delusions go right to the top. According to The Times:

Downing Street … insists that it must find the right balance between measures that will show the public it can be trusted to control migration but also to avoid harming the economy and Britain’s international reputation.

I suppose if Britain slammed its borders shut, locked its doors and insisted that no foreigner was allowed to place his or her big toe on British soil that would harm its international reputation. But this is a bit like if your lanky correspondent was concerned about going to the gym because he might get “too big”. This is so far from anything that Britain is going to experience that its being a factor in governmental decision-making shows a total loss of any fingernail, never mind grip, on reality.

International notagoodlookism betrays British interests

I think the obsession with Britain’s “international standing” is magnified by the fact that it makes for a convenient talking point for people of sufficiently soggy minds and constitutions that substantive intellectual and moral arguments are tough to make. In the darker back streets of Twitter, there is a running joke about people who protest against controversial opinions on the grounds that they are “not a good look” — the humour lying in the inability of the objecting party to argue about whether they are actually true or false, or good or bad. International notagoodlookism betrays British interests while also offering an impoverished understanding of what a reputation is and why it matters.

Yes, I want Britain to be respected. But superficial and self-indulgent thinking accomplishes the opposite. Focusing on British interests, and the long-term security and wealth of the nation, will do more for its international standing than neurotic yammering about its image.

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