The Conservative Party’s surprising victory yesterday has rendered obsolete the orgy of pre-election handwringing about the ineffectiveness of Britain’s impending minority government. But it hasn’t rendered obsolete growing concerns about Britain’s retreat from the world stage. Indeed, it may just intensify them.
David Cameron now has a second term as prime minister and a majority government for the first time. But the vote wasn’t a resounding endorsement of the Tories. They won 37 percent of the vote, just two percentage points above what the polls predicted. And Cameron’s majority is slim. He will be devoting a lot of time to holding it together.
Cameron also hasn’t seemed inclined thus far to assert Britain’s global influence. Aside from Libya, he has preferred to let Berlin, Paris, or Washington lead on most issues. His overseas efforts have focused heavily on promoting Britain’s commercial interests.
That choice might reflect the demand of combating the Great Recession or the political need to chart a different path from Tony Blair, whose aggressive support for U.S. foreign policy angered many Britons. But even if Cameron now opts to be assertive, at least two issues will make that hard to do.
The first is the success Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party had yesterday. The SNP won fifty-six of Scotland’s fifty-nine parliamentary seats, and in doing so revived the idea of an independent Scotland thought dead after the No vote won last September’s referendum. Even if the SNP fails to secure another referendum, it will push to devolve more power to Scotland. That will fuel Welsh and English nationalism, encouraging Britons to turn inward.
The second issue is Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum in 2017 on Britain’s membership in the European Union. The UK Independent Party (UKIP) won 13 percent of yesterday’s vote, so he faces continued pressure to secure a “better deal” for Britain in the EU. What that better deal is remains unknown. What is clear is that Germany, the dominant force in the EU, has little interest in granting London concessions.
Even if Cameron asserts his inner Churchill, blunts Scottish nationalism, and derails the euroskeptics, larger, long-term trends are diminishing Britain’s capacity to influence on world events. Consider:
- Britain now has had the world’s ninth largest economy. It is likely to fall out of the top ten in the coming years.
- In 1990, Britain spent 3.8 percent of its GDP on defense. Today, it spends less than 2 percent. In absolute terms, defense spending has fallen 14 percent since 2010 after accounting for inflation.
- British troop levels have shrunk 19 percent since 2007, and they’re set to shrink another 8 percent by 2020. Even steeper cuts could be on the way. If they materialize, the British army would be the smallest it has been since it lost to the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord.
- In 1996, the British Navy had thirty-six warships—destroyers and frigates. Today, it has eighteen. Britain is building two new aircraft carriers. The first is scheduled to be completed in 2017, three years before Her Majesty’s Navy acquires the planes that will fly off its decks.
Britain does have a UN Security Council veto. But that confers powers more symbolic than real. Likewise, London’s importance as a global financial center makes Britain a leading force in international finance. But that might inhibit rather than embolden British diplomacy. The Cameron government lobbied hard to ensure that sanctions against Russia wouldn’t send rubles flowing out of the City of London, or, as some wags prefer to call it, “London-grad.”
Of course, a Britain with modest global ambitions may be the best choice for Britons themselves. The British economy might benefit from elevating British commercial and trade interests over wider foreign policy interests.
But anyone looking for a Britain that has “a grander role, a grander ambition, a place beyond the ordinary” will likely be disappointed by the new Cameron government. That’s especially true for the United States, which has long treated British support for its policies as axiomatic.
This is not to say the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom will disappear. It won’t. Common history and a shared tongue count for a lot. But on an increasing number of issues, London and Washington will be happier talking about the past than the future.