Much attention has been focused on Boris Johnson being largely ignored by Nato leaders during the photo call for the recent meeting on Ukraine. Perhaps his peripheral status was over emphasised in certain sections of the press (the full video is shown here). What was clear however, was that while he may not be irrelevant, neither is he necessary. Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden are the leaders – both in reaching out and making connections as leaders do, and by being treated as leaders – as evidenced by the direction of the gaze of their neighbours and their readiness to have their hands shaken.
Growing marginalisation of the UK
The growing marginalisation of the UK since Brexit has been widely discussed, both in the UK and abroad. Johnson’s recent comments regarding the similarities between the invasion of Ukraine and Brexit have only served to underscore his irrelevance as a serious player for serious times.
While Brexit must, by its own logic, render the UK less influential in Europe and in Europe’s dealings with the rest of the world, it was not self-evidently true that it would lessen the UK’s influence beyond Europe.
Johnson, and other members of his cabinet, must take some personal responsibility for the UK’s marginal status; their behaviour has been marked by pettiness. But, the UK’s responses to recent existential challenges – such as the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, catastrophic meteorological events and surges in mass migration – has also revealed a nation that is leaden-footed in a crisis. The UK is to be accepted (as it must be) but ‘managed’, rather than included as a valuable contributor to international problem solving.
The lead weight that keeps dragging the UK back to the periphery is a particularly British mindset, established during the empire and supported by a credo of victimhood ever since. It is a belief that foreigners and foreign countries are either the enemy to be excluded as dangerous, or are there to be exploited. This belief drives almost all our internal and external policies, governmental structures and allocation of funds. Until we free ourselves from this mindset, the UK will fail to thrive and its importance will shrivel further.
UK mindset: foreigners are either the enemy or to be exploited
We can see this mindset in operation in the ease with which the government has been able to swiftly arm Ukraine, but cannot respond to the refugee crisis other than by treating Ukrainians as potential enemies.
Likewise, it is exploitation that has driven the UK’s failed covid response. Rather than prevent covid, the government has ruthlessly exploited the labour of health and social care workers, including a form of debt bondage that makes it impossible to escape. And for them to die in greater numbers than the UK population.
The government has also been content to let the virus spread and mutate worldwide while it thought UK citizens would be protected by vaccines and the economy would quickly recover. It opted not to follow World Health Organization guidance or to support international vaccine efforts commensurate with our wealth.
Immigration policies, unequivocally, seek to exploit the contributions of foreign NHS staff, fruit pickers, lorry drivers, P&O staff, Russian oligarchs or Nobel laureates. But the government has been powerless in the face of P&O or Russian exploitation.
A sense of nationalistic entitlement is also evident in the government’s insistence that EU countries take back refugees that arrive in the UK while refusing to take its share of refugees or help resolve the global crisis of mass displacement. The latest government proposal in the nationality and borders bill is to deny visas to citizens of those countries who fail to accept returned refugees thus further emphasising the government’s intention to bully rather than collaborate.
Ukrainian refugees excluded and put at risk
The UK’s preference for immigration exclusion and the use of power rather than collaboration or negotiation has been most in evidence in its approach to refugees fleeing Ukraine.
By 24 March, 20,000 visas to the UK had been issued. This is about half a percent of the 3,400,000 who have already fled Ukraine. The application process takes hours to navigate and complete, and is only accessible in English. Refugees have to travel to the nearest capital for biometric checks and then have to wait to hear if a visa will be granted and then several more days for it to be issued.
The UK government has not set up offices on the borders or in Calais, or made it easy for those fleeing to gain consular assistance. It has not provided food, accommodation or health care for those stuck in the system it had created. It has washed its hands of the consequences, leaving vulnerable Ukrainian refugees at the mercy of traffickers and slavery. Or it has relied on other governments and the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces.
The UK is dependent on immigrants to feed and care for its citizens, as it has found to its great cost since Brexit. But this necessity has not made it less exploitative or welcoming. It has allowed only the families of those Ukrainians with settled status to come from Ukraine and not the families of those on seasonal worker or other short-term contracts, some of whom have been working in the UK for years. Yet it wants those workers to remain in the UK (and they may find it impossible to leave) to continue to feed or care for us (and only for as long as we decide we need them), rather than go home now to protect their families or fight for Ukraine.
Highly visible behaviour and practices like these show the UK in its true colours and cut through the verbiage of ‘leading’ an international effort. Global problems are not solved though set piece speeches or turning up for a photo shoot, but in practice on the ground. A shambling Johnson or a preening Liz Truss would not in themselves turn other countries away from the UK; the stakes are too high. It is the UK’s day-to-day behaviour that indicates we are now a country to be ‘managed’, rather than included as an equal contributor.
Anti-immigration policies are failing UK citizens too
The anti-immigration, exploitative mindset poorly serves the UK’s interests. We rely on immigrant labour and the UK would quickly collapse without it. It constrains our capacity to be innovative and creative or to have a breadth and depth of knowledge that will be necessary for the challenges ahead.
It is not just refugees who now much prefer Germany as a safe destination to any other in Europe, but our own citizens do too. Even Robert Colvile, a right-wing thinker and author of the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto, thinks we face ‘Japanisation’ of the UK economy: a world of lower wages, higher cost of living, higher taxation and economic stagnation. Japan is one of the most hostile countries in the world towards immigrants and refugees and this has directly contributed to its stagnation.
The EU and the US have both passed through a similar period of punitive nationalism. Trump built his walls, banned immigration from Muslim countries and separated families of immigrants on the Southern border. The EU too, though less aggressively, has built walls, closed borders and has been accused of cruel and hostile policies towards refugees and immigrants from outside Europe.
Nationalism is a contested terrain and values will strengthen or loosen as circumstances and politics change. The EU and the US currently seem to have pulled themselves back from its full horrors. Both seem to have found a new purpose, much more like the confident Europe of 2015 when Angela Merkel said of Syrian refugees “let them come… we can manage it”.
UK paralysed by our national mindset
The difference between the UK, and the EU and US, is that we are paralysed by our nationalist mindset and the punitive and controlling approaches that have been introduced in its wake. It governs everything the UK does and makes us leaden-footed when we should be agile, dogmatic when we should be questioning existing policies, and cruel when we should be compassionate.
The UK, even the government, seems unhappy with where this xenophobia has led us. It wants to be compassionate towards Ukrainians. The Ukrainian crisis has also made visible the extent to which other cruelties have already been implemented or are planned in the nationality and borders bill. What was, seemingly, acceptable a few weeks ago, is no longer.
At present, the UK is an unreliable and peripheral partner when international solutions are being sought. We are at the table but not a contributor and the problem is not (just) Johnson. Without changing our punitive and exploitative national mindset, a strong imprint from colonialism, we will never be the leading partner we aspire to be.