Since the Brexit vote, British politics has been curiously alternativeless. The government rules without any effective opposition. The Prime Minister was installed by her party as the only imaginable choice once the other would-be contenders had been properly scrutinised. Theresa May was not particularly inspiring. But what else could the Conservative party have done?
The Prime Minister has spent some months reviewing her options, only to find that she has none. She has rightly concluded that controls on immigration are a non-negotiable feature of any Brexit deal, given the basis of the referendum campaign. So, making a virtue out of necessity, Theresa May has announced that Britain will not be seeking continued membership of the single market (knowing that it was not on offer if Britain insisted on controlling immigration from the EU). She is looking for a swift agreement on limited terms, accepting that a more comprehensive agreement is in practice impossible. But what else could she have done?
Having burned its bridges with the rest of the EU, Britain must find new friends – or rely more heavily on existing ones. And as Thucydides said over 2000 years ago, “It is the habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire”. So Theresa May concluded that despite disagreeing strongly with Donald Trump on many matters, including the importance of NATO, the appropriate response to Russia and tariff-free trade, she needed to get as close to the incoming administration in Washington as possible. There were obvious risks given the new president’s apparent waywardness, his loose relationship with the truth, his past boorishness towards many women and a smorgasbord of troubling policy positions. Britain had to proceed on the basis that those could be contained or sidestepped. From that point, the British government’s foreign policy in relation to the USA was founded on hope. But what else could she have done?
The Foreign Office secured the undoubted coup of getting Theresa May to meet Donald Trump first of all the world leaders. And she gave a serious and thoughtful speech to assembled Republicans in which she announced that “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”. Once again, the Prime Minister made a virtue of necessity, given the new president’s own clearly-expressed views on the subject. This marks a sharp break from the liberal interventionist consensus of the last two decades. But what else could she have done?
No one can accuse Theresa May have being underprepared for her meeting with Donald Trump. She seems to have taken to heart Thucydides’ words that “It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well, and look up to those who make no concessions.” With firmness she publicly declared on his behalf that he was fully committed to NATO. He was charmed sufficiently to guide her through a colonnade. From that point on the two of them will be forever inextricably associated in the public’s eyes as being hand in hand. That was a hostage to fortune that Theresa May must have regretted from the very moment that she felt his paw grasp her. But what else could she have done?
When the Prime Minister left the USA, the consensus was that she had added to her stature. It unravelled all too quickly as Donald Trump signed an executive order on Holocaust Memorial Day to ban those born in seven countries from entering the USA. (The president seems unaware that the approved way of interpreting his words was seriously but not literally and seems dead set on being taken seriously and literally.) This caused outrage in Britain well beyond the usual sources, with a series of Conservative MPs queuing up to condemn it. A petition to deny Donald Trump the state visit that Theresa May had promised him has accumulated signatures at a record-breaking pace, soaring far past the million mark in a day. As I write, she seems trapped between wanting to recognise the undoubtedly real disgust that many Britons feel about this policy that affects prominent Brits, including Sir Mo Farah, and not wanting to offend Donald Trump, whose goodwill she so desperately needs. She looks simultaneously venal and feeble. But what else can she do?
The contrast is starkly made with other European leaders. Angela Merkel, for example, has felt no need to rush to Donald Trump’s side. She has been able to set her own course and has felt uninhibited in condemning this policy. She is able to do this because she has more options, options that are derived in large part from Germany being in the EU. Britain, it is becoming painfully clear, is out of options.
Does this mean that Britain should backtrack on Brexit? No, that ship has sailed. But the limits of the control taken back are becoming painfully apparent. That man Thucydides first recorded the view that “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Britain is getting a crash course in the truth of this dictum right now. Ancient history has never seemed more modern. Expect Britain to have to suffer much more in the coming years.