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A reasoned defence
Written by Alex Massie
18 March 2021
George Orwell reminds us that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. And so it does, not least because what is routine or typical or always there soon becomes something easily ignored and because, in other instances, certain obvious truths may be so unwelcome it is preferable to avoid them. The Emperor’s New Clothes, and all that.
Bias works in other ways too. For once we have persuaded ourselves of something, we cling to that belief with great stubbornness, and it takes more than mere facts or evidence to persuade us we were mistaken in the first place. Thus, the keenest advocates of Brexit are unlikely to ever acknowledge that even a liberation in the round – as they may see it – must be accompanied by certain disagreeable disadvantages in the particular. For trade-offs are unavoidable.
In like fashion, however, ardent Remainers still struggle to make their peace with the fact Brexit was, in the end, what the people of the United Kingdom demanded. From which spawns the assumption that anything the UK does must be foolish and, in contrast and in reaction to that, the EU has assumed levels of wisdom and munificence never previously afforded it. The UK’s decision to remove itself from the EU’s vaccination programme now looks prescient but it was accompanied by any amount of howling at the time. Here again, trade-offs abound and it is foolish to insist that even if the UK may lose more than it gains from Brexit, there cannot be any possible advantages to it.
This, though, appears a concept too tricky for many to grasp. Thus, the novelist Philip Pullman observed this week that “every day this country gets a little worse, and every day there’s a little less we can do about it”. He happened to be speaking of Boris Johnson’s ministry, but you would not need to conduct an exhaustive search to discover plenty of people in Scotland who take a similar view of Nicola Sturgeon’s.
Here we see a display – and a proud one at that – of confirmation bias. If you start from the presumption everything is rotten you will only see evidence that confirms that view. I am not convinced this kind of thinking is good for anyone’s mental health, but it is more common than you might care to think and not all of it may be ascribed to the particular peculiarities of this virus-infested year.
So, one test of whether or not you have retained possession of your marbles is to distinguish between the detail of policies announced and the identity of those launching them. One fine example of this may be found in the British government’s integrated strategic defence review, published this week. The immediate headlines centred on an increase in the UK’s nuclear weapons reserve – a decision taken, at least in part, on account of the desire to have two Trident submarines rather than one on patrol at all times – and this, as you might expect, occasioned plenty of derision. Here we go again: the United Kingdom living off its history, still pretending it is a great power, a country uncommonly full of itself and fatally addicted to nostalgia. Britain should really mind its tone, you know.
And, as ever, there is a lick of truth to that charge. But it is also a view too much in love with its own assumptions. It is riddled in confirmation bias, for it ascribes a single motive to every foreign or defence policy choice and it is predicated on the presumption this is both a ridiculous country and, more than that, one that is uncommonly absurd. Few such accusations would be levelled at a comparable French analysis of its defence and foreign policy posture.
A dispassionate analysis of the review confirms it is a more substantial piece of work than its critics suppose. Much of it exists independently of Brexit for it is more concerned with global trends than neighbourhood ones. To that end, it recognises the essential malignancy of Russia’s present regime while also accepting that China is both opponent and partner. The latter because of changing global trade patterns but also on account of the reality, unwelcome as it may be, that meaningful progress on matters such as climate change is impossible without Chinese involvement.
In turn, that requires the striking of any number of unpalatable balances. China’s human rights record is, and will likely remain, disgraceful. But it is also obvious that, just as individual investors diversify their portfolios to account for the fact that Asia, not Europe, will most likely be the growth engine of the future, governments must pay some attention to these realities too. So, when Dominic Raab observes that “if we restrict it [trade deals] to countries with ECHR-levels of human rights we are not going to do many deals with the growth markets of the future” he is merely noting an obvious truth, even if it might be advisable not to say the quiet bit out loud.
Again, it is a question of weighing what can be done with what one might like to see done if the world were a more genially arranged place. A firm line with China in one area – as, for instance, is demonstrated by the UK’s decision to offer refuge to Hong Kong residents – is matched by realism in others. Far from over-estimating the UK’s influence, the strategic review offers a measured appraisal of Britain’s capabilities. In foreign policy, you do what you can where you can while always accepting that it is not all you might like to do.
As Sir Alex Younger, the former head of MI6 put it, “We should not dodge the fact that we are in a fierce competition and in some cases in a vital contest. Whoever loses will face reduced control over their own future. China understands this well.” That does not require one to embrace a new Cold War or envisage some inevitable – and purgative – clash of civilisations. But, as Sir Alex reminds us, “the pandemic has seen growth rates diverge to our detriment, tattered international institutions, steepening global rivalry and diplomatic trust at an all-time low”.
In such circumstances, it would be folly not to commission a thorough defence and foreign policy review and equally foolish to pretend that these challenges – which are far from unique to the UK – really do exist. History is not the kind of thing from which anyone can opt-out without paying some heavy price.
All of this is in front of our noses, and it would be even if Boris Johnson were not prime minister. If your response to these matters is conditioned by your general view of Johnson and his ministry then you are, I am afraid, in danger of missing the wood for the trees. Some questions are larger than the identity of the government of the day and this too is something always in such plain sight it is so very easily overlooked.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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