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Britain’s global disappearing act is poised to take next step

London’s confusion about its wider co-ordinates combines with ignorance of Irish realities to produce current protocol standoff

In a major strategic appraisal of February 1970, Sinn Féin surveyed the dramatic slide in Britain’s global fortunes and concluded that there had never been a better time to make the final push for a united Ireland. The weight of more than two decades of imperial retrenchment presented a rare chance “to take advantage of Britain’s weakness and isolation”. Indeed, the outlook now seemed “more favourable than 50 years ago”, lending a palpable sense that their moment had arrived.

It was a variation on the old maxim “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” – only now the difficulties had multiplied. The long, slow depletion of British global prestige could no longer be quarantined offshore. With the outbreak of the Troubles, it threatened a rupture at the UK’s most vulnerable fault line.

It was not just that British power and influence were on the wane, but that the imaginative frontiers of Britishness itself were in rapid retreat. No longer could “British India” be invoked without wry amusement, nor antipodeans plausibly be described as “Britons of the South”. The few remaining pockets of staunch “Britishers” in the world already seemed quaintly suspect (much like the antiquated flavour of the word “Britisher” itself).

All of this went entirely against the grain of Britain’s stake in Northern Ireland. For centuries, to be British meant pushing outwards, occupying forward positions. As the novelist John Fowles remarked at the time, “Britain” was really a “passport word” tailored to far-flung co-ordinates and overseas reward. Its most avid devotees were to be found in all manner of remote locations, exploiting the blurred boundaries that came with an inherently expansive identity.


In a world where imperial provinces, dominions and dependencies were the order of the day, the persistence of a British enclave in an otherwise republican Ireland had enjoyed a wider – if contested – legitimacy. But with the creeping obsolescence of British sentiment worldwide, the whole complexion of the Northern Ireland problem was fundamentally altered.

Sinn Féin was not alone in grasping the significance. For loyalists, it posed deeply unnerving questions about the nature of their cause and the object of their loyalties. Misgivings about the strength of Britain’s mettle were nothing new in themselves but, with the empire reduced to a few scattered overseas territories and a humiliating withdrawal from “East of Suez” on the cards, these doubts acquired a new, combative edge.

Crucially, the portents in Northern Ireland formed part of a much wider reckoning. White settlers in Africa had already discovered to their dismay that long-distance affections could no longer be relied on. New Zealanders were also brought face to face with the diminishing returns of being British as the UK readied to join the Common Market – regarded by many as a species of economic fratricide.

No longer was Britain to be a “passport word”. Nor, for that matter, would possession of a passport guarantee a passage to Britain (as thousands of Kenyan-Asian passport holders rudely discovered).

Virtually everywhere Ulster loyalists looked, Britain seemed to prevaricate in its support for its most ardent supporters, unable (or unwilling, one could never quite tell) to provide the customary show of British grit and resolve. More than at any other time in the long history of sectarian enmity, the external setting fostered a climate of militant vigilance.

As one correspondent to the Paisleyite Ulster Protestant lamented in April 1970: “Who would think that this British family, the most stable bloc of nations in the world, could ever show signs of disintegrating? Yet this is happening. Why?” The evident bewilderment signalled the magnitude of the shift – and the intensity of the passions it ignited.

It was above all in England that the Troubles outbreak exposed signs of a widening rift. Contemporary press coverage noted the extraordinary sense of detachment, as though the violence and turmoil were another world away. Tory MP David Walder confessed that his sole personal investment was “a sneaking sympathy with the average British incomprehension of things Irish”. It was an extraordinary juxtaposition – indifference in the face of domestic civil disorder.

None of this was lost on loyalist leaders, for whom the deteriorating emotional investments across the Irish Sea were even more alarming than the nationalist threat. It was the one thing Sinn Féin and Ulster unionists could agree on – that the outward crisis of British confidence had penetrated inwards, corroding support for the loyalist cause.

Britain’s borders did not miraculously “harden” with the Brexit vote of June 2016. “Taking back control” was merely the next stage in the contraction of Britain’s horizons over a much longer term. It marked the culmination of decades of grasping for the nation’s proper dimensions in the aftermath of global empire. Above all, it forced difficult questions about the viability of Britain itself. Without the crucial ingredient of elastic frontiers, what unifying elements remained?

Northern Ireland has consistently furnished unpromising answers. It should come as no surprise that the instability of recent years has hinged on a recrudescence of the “Border problem” – which was always about far more than the demarcation line between Britain and Ireland. The same confusion about Britain’s wider mental co-ordinates, combined with equally customary ignorance of Irish realities, has produced the current standoff.

The irony of the Northern Ireland protocol is that it arose out of the UK’s insistence on a hard border with the EU so as to maximise freedom of action elsewhere – with the ultimate object of restoring the nation’s worldly credentials under the banner of “Global Britain”. Such is the contradictory urge to batten down the hatches and push out into the world all at once.

Consciously or otherwise, advocates of a hard Brexit still harbour the conviction that without the imaginative properties of “global reach”, Britain can no longer be Britain. But they are no closer to squaring this with the lost latitude of the last 50 years. If Britain’s present difficulties are Ireland’s opportunity, they are wholly self-inflicted.

Persisting with an outsized Britishness only hastens the very outcome that generations of unionists have foresworn. Never before did the prospect of Irish reunification seem less far-fetched. The Taoiseach has publicly aired his belief “that it can happen in my lifetime”. Polling data points to increasingly favourable numbers either side of the Border.

None of this could have been anticipated even 10 years ago. Yet looking back over more than half a century of ceded territory and receding frontiers, a much larger story emerges. The next instalment of Britain’s global disappearing act is nearer to hand – and closer to home – than ever before.

Stuart Ward’s new book Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain is published by Cambridge University Press