Peter Gumbel / Oct 2020
Britannia hasn’t ruled the waves for a very long time, but the United Kingdom has nonetheless been remarkably successful over the past half century at wielding a degree of influence on the world stage that goes far beyond its size or means. It has done so thanks to its exemplary wielding of soft power. The large and varied armoury for this effort includes an open economy, a pragmatic global outlook, and a sterling reputation for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.
As any proficient marketing executive can tell you, however, while it takes years—and sometimes decades and centuries—to build a brand, it takes almost no time at all to destroy one. Brexit Britain, and the erratic politics of successive Conservative governments before, during, and after the 2016 referendum, are proving the point.
Last month (Oct), the Moody’s rating agency became the latest organization to point out that political rot is setting in. In downgrading the UK’s credit rating, Moody’s cited the “diminished quality of legislative and executive institutions” among other factors. Certainly, Boris Johnson’s threat to break international law by overriding a treaty with the EU relating to Northern Ireland does not sit well with Britain’s reputation for legal rectitude. Nor did his attempt in 2019 to suspend parliamentary debate of Brexit, an effort rebuffed by the Supreme Court.
Less obvious, but no less insidious, is the message that the Home Office has been sending out to the world as it boasts about ending freedom of movement—an astonishing development in the country whose international reputation for upholding and expanding basic freedoms dates back to the Magna Carta. And the discomfort and inconvenience the government is imposing on European nationals in the UK blatantly disregards their very real contribution to the country’s economic performance and broader prosperity; among other examples, about 17 percent of academic researchers and about 18 percent of people working in the City are from European countries. Latest data suggest the Settlement Scheme and the overall anti-European sentiment being stirred up are sending a deep chill through EU nationals already in the UK and will likely deter many others from coming.
On a personal level, Brexit made me question my pride at being British and, like many other Brits living on the continent, sent me on a search for a second passport. I ended up acquiring German citizenship. In doing so, I closed an 80-year cycle of history: my grandparents were German Jews who managed to flee Nazi Germany, getting out at the last minute in 1939 and making a new home in England. The Nazis stripped them of their German citizenship, which made me eligible under the post-war German constitution to apply for it to be reinstated.
I have long considered Germany’s efforts to atone for the crimes committed during the Third Reich as sincere, and admire their attempts to tackle their history head on, however painful. Even so, if you had asked me even a few years ago whether I would ever become German, I would have said no: I was British, and that was all I needed. With the Brexit vote, however, I felt orphaned. It was no longer possible to be British and European at the same time.
As Britain tarnishes its reputation, Germany has stepped in to take its place—a historic twist. Germany is now not only ascendant but, by some accounts, at the pinnacle of its soft power. A Gallup poll on global leadership earlier this year put Germany at the top of the list for the third year running. Other polls that rank countries by reputation, including from US News and World Report, place Germany in the top tier, well ahead of the UK. Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular, is widely admired for her competence and sense of decency; unlike Britain, she has opened the country’s doors to needy migrants.
Soft power by its nature is difficult to measure, but losing it has consequences. Hanging a “Europeans not welcome” sign on the door deters not just talented European academics and bankers, but is already reducing Britain’s attractiveness, among others, for EU students and foreign direct investment; FDI started dropping after the referendum and in 2019 was only one-third the level of 2016.
For me personally, it’s saddening to see the Britain that generously took in my family lose its standing. For so long the country got so much right—and now it’s throwing that away.