Despite its straitened circumstances, Britain emerged from the Second World War still harbouring notions of great power. A young New Zealand diplomat, Frank Corner, probably spoke for most of the foreign policy community in London when he wrote: 'the plain fact is that the UK is not a great power, she cannot afford the expense and manpower to act like one, and if she tries to do so she is in great danger of alienating her friends and being crushed between Russia and the US'. (1) The United Kingdom, he explained, was not able 'to cushion its economy before Lend Lease' and 'had taken the full brunt of the war ... by sacrificing her overseas assets'; it had, in any case, been 'heading for the rocks in the 25 disgraceful years between the wars, when its obsolete industry, already inefficient before the war, was 'ruined by a rotting capitalistic system ... [that] denied it healthy and enthusiastic workers and [its] class-based education system that did not produce enough scientists to refurbish it'. (2)
Some of these 'enthusiastic workers', disgusted at the lack of opportunity, set sail for New Zealand; by I960 British migrants had swelled the New Zealand population by more than a quarter. Their stories are the subject of a forthcoming book by New Zealand historian Jane Tolerton. Stuart Prior, previously New Zealand's ambassador to Russia, gave his father's version of events. As a member of the British Expeditionary Force, Bill Prior was caught up in the chaos of the evacuation from Dunkirk, when he was told by his officers that it was 'every man for himself. 'We had to find our own way down to the beaches ... We looked up to them. They were educated men--they'd been to university, and they ran ...' Bill had stood up to his armpits in water waiting for deliverance. He was among the lucky ones. His military service continued beyond the German capitulation in Europe, until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, when he was shipped home. Back in Blighty, and demobbed with 5 [pounds sterling], a suit and a thank you, his sense of disenchantment grew.
Come 1951, with the Korean War in progress, Bill was called back to the colours. Presenting himself at his local army office, he protested that he had already served for six years and now had a wife and child, so should not younger people be called up first. His options, he was told, were only two: either return to the colours or emigrate. In May 1952 Bill set sail on the Captain Cook, a former Canadian troopship, bought by the New Zealand government to ship immigrants to New Zealand.
Frank Corner's analysis of post-war Britain is borne out by Bill's story. The estrangement he experienced has an uncanny resemblance to that felt by many pro-Brexit voters. The cause of their ennui, populist 'Leave' campaigners told them, was the European Union. Brexit would recoup funds from the European Union to improve their lot. Enriched by worldwide trade deals, Britain would 'take back control' and rule the waves again. Prime Minister Theresa May repeated this mantra at the 2018 Conservative Party Conference, to uproarious applause.
The government's latest great power blustering is apparent in the decision to spend 200 billion [pounds sterling] on up-dating submarines, although, operationally, they will depend on the loan of US missiles. So much for British's independent nuclear deterrent, surely a chimera since the 1957 Defence Review and the subsequent cancellation of Blue Streak (I960)? Just before the present European elections, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt vowed to double defence spending in order to meet Britain's post-Brexit global obligations. Just what might they be?
Those of a jingoistic bent, with Brexiteers in the vanguard, would do well to reflect on the consequences of past British hubris. It was witnessed during the Suez Crisis (1956) by Tom Larkin; now aged 101, he is the lone survivor of New Zealand's original band of diplomats. Even now, over 50 years later, he visibly winces as he recalls the shameful episode in the United Nations when...