Whose National Interest Is It Anyway? Theresa May, Brexit and the Performance of UK Grand Strategy

Oliver Daddow

Oliver Daddow is Assistant Professor in British Politics and Security at the University of Nottingham.

This article argues that Theresa May has fallen back on tried and trusted rhetoric to make the case for Brexit helping the UK become ‘great’ again. This continues a venerable tradition in UK grand strategy of having one’s cake and eating it too, inside or out of Europe. It remains an open question whether May’s appeals to the shady notion of the national interest will survive the UK’s arduous  process of withdrawal from the EU, and help the UK chart a new national identity post-Empire and now post-Europe.     


‘Now we can lead in Europe…Britain’s future lies inside the family of Europe’. So wrote the Daily Mail on 24 June 1971 in celebration of the historic deal that paved the way for Britain to join the European Economic Community (EEC). It had been a painful, sometimes humiliating process for the UK. In the 1960s its first two attempts to enter the EEC were vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle. From October 1970 there were lengthy and delicate negotiations, complicated still further by the need to account for the trading interests of the UK’s Commonwealth partners.


Following fraught parliamentary debate about the Treaty of Accession in October 1971, the House of Commons passed the Conservative Government’s European Economic Communities Bill by a majority of 356 votes to 244 and the UK joined the EEC on 1 January 1973. Even as the ink was drying on the legislation, however, criticisms were being voiced not only that parliament was divided but that the UK public was given no say in the decision. Dissent, division and disconnect between elites and the public would be a theme of the UK’s years as a European member, even after the 1975 referendum in which the UK public voted two-to-one to remain in the EEC.


UK governing elites knew from the start that they had a public relations battle on their hands because the public evidently did not ‘feel’ Europe at an instinctive, emotional level. European identity did not sit easily with a UK public literally schooled on the merits of Empire, ‘standing alone’ from Europe across the English Channel, and looking for influence across the Atlantic in the context of the US-UK ‘special relationship’. Diplomatic historian Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon has thus inferred that ‘The British public were resigned to the fact that the United Kingdom would enter the EEC; however, they were not happy about it’ (p.360). Concerns about identity, sovereignty and ‘dishing’ the Commonwealth all featured prominently in the national conversation.


Behind the scenes, Grob-Fitzgibbon has revealed (pp.357-358), the Conservative Party’s Research Department (CRD) was working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s newly established European Communities Information Unit (ECIU) to ‘sell’ the merits of joining Europe to an unconvinced UK public. The Edward Heath government sought to allay public fears by foregrounding six themes in its pro-EEC messages:

  1. Europe would raise UK living standards;
  2. Europe would promote UK economic expansion;
  3. Europe would provide a huge and growing single market for UK exports;
  4. Europe would offer the UK the prospect of a new, post-imperial world role and greater influence in diplomatic counsels around the globe;
  5. Staying out of Europe would reduce the UK’s global influence relative to its continental neighbours;
  6. The choice facing the UK was not about economics but about the very future of Britain.


If required, Theresa May could have used this document from the National Archives to speed up the process of writing her post-Brexit speeches, changing ‘Europe’ for ‘Brexit’ without altering her sense of UK foreign and economic policy goals one iota. For example, in her speech in East Kilbride, Scotland, on 27 March 2017, the Prime Minister spoke of her desire to ‘forge a more global Britain’ by acting as a ‘friend and ally with Europe, but also a country that looks beyond Europe to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike’. The only significant difference now is that May’s ‘family of nations’ does not include Europe, but ends instead at the UK’s borders. This reflects the practical fact that the Brexit vote returned the UK to the status of Europe’s ‘outsider’ and the continued salience of immigration in political and public discourse.


We can see from the above that May’s conception of grand strategy extends the pragmatic tradition in UK foreign policy dating at least as far back as Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston in 1848: ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow’. We could call this the ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’ approach to UK grand strategy. It cynically tries to close down discussion of sudden or unexpected policy shifts by elevating them to ‘national interest’ issues. It falls back on the ‘national interest’ as a rhetorical device to provide unity at a time of crisis, dislocation or national renewal.


What leaders who revert to this discourse cannot admit, but which is painfully obvious from studying the history of the UK’s relations with Europe, is that the ‘national interest’ is in fact coterminous with the perceived interest of the governing party at any given moment. The national interest is a political construction, there to be used for any purpose. To give just the most obvious recent example, when announcing the referendum in January 2013 David Cameron said it would settle ‘the country’s destiny’, when it was manifestly about settling the Conservative Party’s destiny.


Today, May speaks of returning Britain to ‘greatness’ using the national interest as the rhetorical cover for a policy she did not even support during the referendum campaign. She is unlikely to be in office when social scientists finally devise a coherent way of measuring the success or otherwise of Brexit in helping Britain achieve ‘greatness’, although efforts are underway. Two things are, however, abundantly clear: in the 1970s public trust in governing elites was higher and public engagement with European policy questions was much lower. The ‘establishment’ was cut more slack as a result, at least until the 1990s when the Maastricht Treaty prompted fevered speculation about the future of the nation state and the EU’s democratic deficit.  


Now, by contrast, Brexit dominates every political discussion and the daily news agenda. The UK public and media are, moreover, very engaged with the negotiating process that will lead to the UK’s eventual withdrawal from the EU in 2019, leading to a degree of public scrutiny over the process that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The problem for May is that the negotiations will be long, complex and painful. Nor are they likely to deliver unambiguous or short-term ‘successes’, certainly not to the degree Brexiteers promised during the referendum campaign in 2016. May is exercising her own and the UK’s agency in a heavily constrained multilateral setting in which many actors – not ‘great’ Britain alone – will shape the final outcome. 


May’s rhetoric might convince enthusiastic Brexiteers on the right of the Conservative Party, who have cleaved for some time to the idea of reinvigorating the Anglosphere. For them, the national interest is coterminous with their sectional interests. The Prime Minister also has the luxury of a Labour Party dogged by internal feuding and lack of coherence about its own identity let alone the nation’s. Dissenting opinion on May’s approach is more visible amongst large numbers of Conservative backbenchers, in the House of Lords, and amongst the public, 48% of whom voted Remain. Expect references to the ‘national interest’ to pile up in the coming years whenever May’s personal standing or Conservative Party unity are threatened by the Brexit negotiations. When they come, you will know the domestic politics of Brexit are not going well. 

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