Left to right: Professors Norman Stone and Jeremy Black
Daniel Johnson: Let's get straight in medias res. Do you think Britain and its new coalition government is going to play a significant part in international affairs in the coming years? Do we still have a unique role to play?
Jeremy Black: I doubt it. British commentators do not realise how relatively inconsequential they have become in the world. The easiest way to show it is to read foreign newspapers, just to see how infrequently Britain occurs, or articles about Britain as opposed to articles about some cat being stuck in Buckingham Palace. It is relatively uncommon in most countries in the world.
Norman Stone: Yes. If you are talking about the 1980s, when this country was well and truly on the map, huge numbers of people were very interested in what was going on here. I don't think it's true now.
JB: The paradoxical aspect is actually that in the last decade we've played an active role in warfare. We've gone back to east of Suez — if you'd have told people in the '70s or '80s that we would go back to east of Suez they would have thought it remarkable. Britain has actually played quite a major role but interest in Britain has receded. I think one of the reasons for that is that, fairly or unfairly, British foreign policy is seen as essentially an adjunct to that of the United States. There isn't much of a sense of Britain as an independent player.
DJ: What about Europe in this? Is this partly a consequence of Britain being absorbed into a larger European whole or is it as you suggested, Jeremy, that we are just an adjunct to the United States?
NS: Oh, I don't know. England is a funny country. And you'll notice I say "England" firmly as a Scotsman who disapproves so strongly of Scottish nationalism.
We were an awful warning to everybody in the Seventies. In fact, the 1970s is a parallel that strikes me as quite interesting at the moment: there were internal commentators who were terribly obsessed with whether it would be Heath or Wilson or the trade unions or Jack Jones or what-not and the outside world just yawned and saw the whole thing going down the plughole. Then along come the 1980s and the thinking was that the country was a similar place but one that comes up a bit and then goes down and then comes up again. So it's, "Hello, it's us." Most countries aren't like that. There is something creative here. We try to bury it, literally — as I see it now looking out of this window, we are trying to bury it under concrete. But we are not even that good at concrete.
JB: What Norman says is right: there are periods when you have intellectual and philosophical and political energy and there are others when it is not the case. But there was another reason for Britain's revival in the 1980s: North Sea oil. We actually had a one-off, great opportunity — whether we squandered it or not is something I suspect the historians of the future will debate and the people at the present time ought to be aware that they have just lived through the final stage of the squandering. But in a sense in the 1980s and 1990s we were able to act in a more active role with some meaning because we could afford to do all sorts of things.
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