Britain is in a lonely place right now. It resembles the scene of a bad traffic accident where shocked passers-by look away with pity and horror in their eyes. Alarmed by what they see, governments around the world practise their own form of social distancing. Once again, Britain is the sick man of Europe.
Lethal mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic is not the sole reason for this un-splendid isolation. The disease’s sudden onslaught is the third national disaster in almost as many years. The first was the decision to walk away from Europe. The second was the advent of Donald Trump and his anarchic America First agenda.
However the virus’s death toll is calculated, the perception is taking hold, abroad as at home, that the Johnson government’s performance is one of the world’s worst, second possibly only to the US. Sympathy for Britain’s plight has not forestalled scathing international criticism.
Italians may surely be forgiven a sense of relief that their country is no longer Europe’s biggest blackspot. With this unwanted title came the unspoken inference that Italy was uniquely unprepared. Some in the UK certainly saw it that way. They thought they were immune. They were betting, as usual, on a bogus British exceptionalism.
Britain “did not pay enough attention to what was happening here”, commented Beppe Severgnini in Corriere della Sera, referring to the two- to three-week period when Italy was ahead of the corona curve. The UK “lost the advantage that fate and Italy gave it... when it was obvious the virus was spreading”.
The view of Britain as Europe’s “problem child” predates the pandemic but has been greatly reinforced by it. Foreign perceptions of the UK as a badly governed, disorderly, embittered and chronically divided country took deep root in the politically chaotic years that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum.
It’s possible that outside observers who were surprised by the anger and passion aroused by Brexit simply did not understand Britain. But the stunning levels of incompetence, jingoism and arrogance displayed by the British side during the withdrawal talks dismayed many Europeans. It was genuinely unexpected.
This altered view of Britain, or at least of Britain’s government, as a not entirely serious, capable or trustworthy partner is not confined to Europe. Given that Brexit is premised on “global Britain” forging a web of dynamic new trade relationships, such reputational damage is potentially calamitous. Unpropitious, too, is the current plunge towards a world recession. The WTO predicts that trade may decline by up to 34%.
What is China, for example, to make of leaders who fail to clearly disassociate from Trump’s self-serving claims that Beijing deliberately spread what he calls the “Wuhan virus”? Huffing and puffing on the Tory right over Huawei hardly bolsters Britain’s claim to be a free-trade champion open for business.
Boris Johnson’s government is easy prey. The age of the unequal treaty is back - with Britain the loser this time
Yet Boris Johnson’s government, ever more desperate for investment, is easy prey. Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomats will see the lack of substance at the heart of a remarkably low-calibre cabinet, and spot a chance for knockdown bargains. The age of the unequal treaty is back – with Britain the loser this time.
What is true of China is true in spades of Trump’s America. Talks about a free-trade deal, begun last week, promise to expose the harsh reality of an isolated Britain’s feeble leverage vis-à-vis a relentlessly self-interested superpower. Lowered food safety standards may be among many enforced compromises.
Yet the Trump presidency’s negative impact on British interests and values far surpasses disputes about chlorinated chicken. Since 2017, Trump has blasted many holes in the foundations of UK security, defence and foreign policy. Britain long counted the US its foremost friend and vital ally. Now that bond is breaking.
On the climate crisis, on Iran, on Nato, on Israel-Palestine, on the UN and boycotted agencies such as the Human Rights Council, on multilateralism in general, on the primacy of international law, on relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and on limiting new nuclear weapons, Trump has mostly ignored Britain’s views.
To this sorry list of spats, splits and schisms may be added Trump’s support for big cuts in foreign aid, crude Islamophobia, the militarisation of space, commercial exploitation of the Arctic and his worrying contempt for democracy, honesty and accountability, as revealed by the Mueller inquiry and his Senate impeachment.
What Johnson and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, dare not admit, for it would wholly explode their Brexit fantasies, is that Trump’s America has become an unreliable, problematic and in some respects, hostile entity, with a tendency to belittle Britain, not build it up. His re-election would extend and intensify the nightmare.
Trump, the greatest of all coronavirus failures, is dangerous to know. And yet still they hug him close, risking infection, petitioning for a deal at almost any cost, mimicking his anti-Europe, populist posturing, rejecting pandemic cooperation with the EU and insisting, even now, that Brexit will be sewn up by December. A stitch-up is more likely. It will end in tears.
One disaster has swiftly followed another. Rarely in modern times has Britain’s place in the world looked so precarious. Rarely has its global reputation for competence, pragmatism and good sense been so battered and disrespected. Rarely have its people and economy faced such challenges and such crippling levels of debt.
Perhaps the last time the country stood alone like this, frightened, sickened, beleaguered, lacking funds and resources and separated from friends, was when it faced a deadly invasion of a different type, 80 years ago next month. As it remembers the victory in Europe that eventually followed in 1945, Britain needs another miracle, a fresh strategy – and much better leaders.