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Why the UK matters

It continues to parlay imperial inheritance into modern geopolitical currency

Why the UK matters

FIRM GRIP: The UK has a more nuanced understanding of what is happening in the Middle East and South Asia than the US. Reuters



Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

THE passing of Queen Elizabeth II is an occasion for sadness and nostalgia. What surprises many is why the erstwhile colonies like India, ravaged by the British, have mourned her passing. In part, it has to do with the ambiguity of our colonial past. Indian soldiers formed the core of the armies that conquered India for the British, with the help of Indian kings and princes allying with one to destroy the other.

The British managed to influence US policy on Kashmir in 1948 and succeeded in transforming an Indian complaint against aggression at the UN into an international dispute.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that the UK still matters to India in ways deeper than just a relationship of a colonial master and its erstwhile subject. The British ethos permeates our Parliament, judiciary, military, the language of higher education and so on.

The PM may celebrate changing the name of Kingsway, aka Rajpath, to Kartavya Path, but he and his government have no compunction in using the draconian Indian Penal Code, instituted by the British in 1860, to jail people for sedition and prevent public protest through its Section 144. They have no problem with the outdated Official Secrets Act of 1923 or the British-created Intelligence Bureau of 1887, which continues to do what it was set up to do — snoop on politicians and political activity in the country. Its work in counter-intelligence is forgettable.

But the UK is important not just to India. It continues to play an outsized global role by skilfully parlaying its enormous imperial inheritance into modern geopolitical currency. Its imperial past with its industrial prowess has helped it become one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres as well as an important location of scientific-technical knowledge. Its various Inns of the Court and royal societies have laid down global standards.

As World War II raged, Britain decided to yoke its bandwagon to the American bull. Sir William Stephenson, code-named Intrepid, a Canadian associate of Churchill, ensured that the US, which was in the grip of an isolationist sentiment, came out on the side of the British. As part of this, in 1940, the British gave the Americans some of their most prized scientific secrets relating to radars, jet engines and atomic weapons.

The wartime relationship gave rise to the Five Eyes of today, where the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand not only share intelligence but also personnel in their intelligence services. Taken together, the alliances and bilateral pacts that these countries have with each other make for an uncommonly strong united perspective on the issues of the day.

Though these countries function largely under the US security umbrella, given its background and expertise, the UK exercises a great deal of influence through the skills of its diplomats and intelligence service MI6. Because of its past, the UK has a more nuanced understanding of what is happening in the Middle East and South Asia than the US.

This was evident in the manner the British influenced American policy on Kashmir in 1948 and succeeded in transforming an Indian complaint against aggression at the UN into an international dispute, which still haunts us today. In 1962, when India was with its back to the wall, the British persuaded the Americans to pressure New Delhi to engage Pakistan in talks to partition Kashmir.

In 1991, PM Margaret Thatcher played a key role in firming up the US resolve to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait through the use of force. In many ways, that was probably the last time the British played such a role. The second time around, it was a fiasco, when Tony Blair went along with the fictitious nuclear weapons charade and participated in the US war that devastated Iraq and the region.

Blair was the last British leader of any consequence and he turned out to have feet of clay. Since then, the British have played a role in destroying two other countries: Libya and Syria.

Brexit only confirmed that its political class was so obsessed with itself that it had lost touch with reality. As a political entity, it is careening in all directions under forgettable leaders like David Cameron, Teresa May and Boris Johnson. Even as new PM Liz Truss talks about tax cuts, its National Health Service is breaking down, just as its biggest aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales did last month.

Despite all this, the things that give the UK its larger-than-life role in world affairs remains. London remains the world’s financial capital. It is the world’s leading foreign exchange centre and the biggest centre for issuing and trading international bonds. It is Europe’s capital for technology and innovation, hosting a quarter of its unicorns. The transactions of its royal societies, its science magazines — the Lancet, New Scientist and Nature — remain among the most prestigious in the world, as do its top universities in Oxford, Cambridge and London. The UK may not be a great wine-growing nation, for example, but it provides the most prestigious certifications for wine-tasting.

More important from the geopolitical point of view, its diplomatic service remains very good, as does its intelligence service, and both are able to generate considerable synergy through their time-tested ties with the US. The latter, in turn, benefits from the quality inputs and analyses the Brits provide. None of this should suggest that either side is being used by the other. Both have a clear understanding of where their national interests lie. The British learnt this when the Americans pulled the rug from under their feet during the 1956 Suez crisis, and the Americans did so when the British panned the American invasion of Grenada.


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