A former MI6 chief says Brexit will undermine Britain's place in the worldby John Sawers / November 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
As a teenager during the Wilson/Heath era, I was conscious that Britain was not doing well. Our comics and films were full of wartime heroism and derring-do, but we were living on memories of the past and our present was failing to match them. We were falling behind Germany and France.
But then things began to change. First came our membership of the European Community, championed by Ted Heath. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms followed—with a heavy price—but the economy turned around. She drove through our membership of the single market, accepting shared decision making as the price. John Major kept us out of the single currency and retained national border controls, while ensuring Britain had a say in all EU decisions, achieving a better deal than any other member state. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown built on this and throughout that time, Britain’s economy grew steadily. We were looked to for leadership and new ideas and felt at ease working with both America and Europe, feeling no need to choose. Respect for Britain grew—it was all so different from the 1960s and 1970s.
Our diplomacy, defence and intelligence played a crucial role in managing the end of the Cold War, and the peace in Northern Ireland was admired across the world, an achievement that enhanced our reputation for negotiation and pragmatism. We boosted our efforts on aid and led new thinking on climate change. After 9/11, we developed new ways for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to collaborate on counter-terror work and when the financial system crashed in 2008, it was Brown who galvanised the international community. There was no doubt that through my time as a diplomat and later as chief of MI6, Britain had weight in the world.
But Britain is at an inflection point. We have chosen to leave the EU. While it was never couched this way, we decided that the power to determine our own future without any interference is worth a sacrifice of jobs and national income—that we should pay a price in order to stand on our own. The question now is how we avoid going back to the 1970s, when Britain was stuck in the economic slow-lane and our politics was inward-looking and zero-sum.…