Ignore the pessimists – Britain is still a major power and Brexit was the decision of a confident people

Ignore the pessimists – Britain is still a major power and Brexit was the decision of a confident people

With a land area of less than 250,000 square kilometres, we frequently hear that Britain is a very small country, nothing more than a rainy little island located off the coast of north-western Europe. As Simon Kuper writes for The Financial Times: “Britain today is like a cute little bonobo ape that thinks it’s a gorilla.” In this way, the country’s small geographic size is being ‘hijacked’ to fuel a new narrative, as an array of journalists and commentators – supportive of remaining inside the European Union – assert that Britain is in terminal decline.

The United Kingdom, we are told, is about to commit national suicide, or at least chop off its arms and legs. Britain, we are told, will be ‘humiliated’; will suffer ‘serious consequences’; or will ‘grovel’ for readmission to the European Union at some unspecified date. From this standpoint, the United Kingdom is constructed as a helpless object to a referential subject – the European Union – which is led by unflappably wise men in Brussels. The government in London, meanwhile, is depicted as weak, divided and stupid.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Britain’s physical size has never been an issue before. It did not prevent the country from kick-starting the Industrial Revolution and propelling the whole world into a new area of social and economic development. It did not prevent the British from building a global imperial economy, which at its apex stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans, and onto the Pacific. Nor has it stopped London from resisting tyrants or intervening in European affairs periodically to uphold or reestablish the balance of power, even when the whole of Europe was under a single hostile power. Most recently the British have led the way in undergirding NATO – the custodian of the post-1945 European peace – by deploying troops, armour and combat jets to Estonia, Poland and Romania in support of the measures to deter Russian revisionism.

As shown by the Audit of Geopolitical Capability, launched today by the Global Britain Programme at The Henry Jackson Society, while Britain may be small, it is also very ‘deep’. It makes up for its small physical size with intensity. With a population of almost 65 million, the British Isles are one of the most densely populated territories on Earth. The country is covered in many cities linked together with a thick lattice of communication systems, and steered by an effective civil service and central government. This provides the strategic base to pack a weighty international punch.

As the audit shows, the United Kingdom has greater technological prowess than Germany, more cultural prestige than France, and a stronger capability to project military power around the world than Russia. Britain has more large companies and net wealth than Germany; the best business environment of any European economy, and Europe’s – indeed, the world’s – premier world city: London. British naval capacity, in terms of total displacement in relation to its European counterparts, is once again operating on a Two Power standard, while the nation’s diplomatic leverage is rivalled only by France. Without a shadow of doubt, the United Kingdom is overall the most capable country in Europe.

But more than that, the United Kingdom compares favourably with its global peers. The country has territories and interests in practically every continent and every ocean; it still looms over most of the world’s strategic maritime choke points from an array of overseas military facilities, second only to the United States. Indeed, while far below America – the global hegemon – the Audit shows that Britain is the world’s second most geopolitically capable country, more capable than China, India, Japan or Russia. Given the speed of China’s rise, Britain may eventually lose its penultimate position, but it can keep it in relation to almost any other power, particularly its European peers.

Sheer geographic size may not be particularly relevant anyway. In fact, Britain’s small size and island location may be its strength. While it may be small in comparison to continental states, it is big enough to matter: flush with natural resources, blessed with rich and fertile soil, and with a number of magnificent harbours on all flanks, the British Isles provide a commanding base to regulate access to the European mainland, as well as to sway the balance of continental power. For Britons, the sea is not a barrier, but a superhighway, drawing them out from their island citadel into their near neighbourhoods and deeper into other parts of the world.

If Britain is to succeed after it leaves the European Union, it needs to reinvent itself, or at least prise out the best parts of the national character to create a new and positive future. The decision of the British people last year, advising the government to leave the European Union, was not the vote of a weakened people, frightened of what is yet to come. It represented a confident people, certain that their country could seize the initiative in the wider world and chart a new destiny. ‘Global Britain’ should be an exciting project of national revival, a chance to strengthen a political union that has stood firm for over three centuries and an opportunity to project it out onto the world.