Still Great Britain, not Little England, after the election

A handout photograph made available by the British Ministry of Defence showing a rooftop view from Horse Guards Parade of the VE Day Parade in central London, England, on May 10, 2015, after the service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey. -- PHOTO:
A handout photograph made available by the British Ministry of Defence showing a rooftop view from Horse Guards Parade of the VE Day Parade in central London, England, on May 10, 2015, after the service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey. -- PHOTO: EPA

WHEN Dr Angela Merkel won re-election in 2013, the outside world saw her success as a sign that things were going well in Germany.

But Mr David Cameron's decisive victory in the United Kingdom's election last week is receiving a much more sceptical press overseas. A Washington Post headline proclaimed: "Election may set Britain on a path to becoming Little England". A New York Times columnist upped the ante by announcing: "The Suicide of Britain".

Many Europeans, meanwhile, are incredulous and angry that the new Cameron government is now certain to hold a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. And the surge of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the potential implications for the unity of Britain, is attracting attention across the world. As one Indian analyst harrumphed to me: "How can the UK still claim to be a major power, when the country is on the brink of falling apart?"

Some British left-wingers share this disillusionment, interpreting their side's electoral defeat as a sure sign of a deep national malaise. The argument that the United Kingdom's election has revealed a badly troubled country is easy to make. But it is also wrong.

Of course, a British exit from the European Union (Brexit) and a Scottish exit from Britain (Scexit?) are both possibilities. But it is much more likely that in five years' time, when this new government leaves office, the UK will still be a united country and will still be a member of the EU. The UK will also continue to be one of the most outward-looking countries in the world and is likely to remain among the fastest-growing economies in the west.

The EU referendum to which Mr Cameron is now committed is certainly a mighty gamble, and one that he has taken largely to appease his own party. The renegotiation of Britain's terms of membership is unlikely to yield more than a fig leaf to allow the government to campaign to stay in the EU.

The strong likelihood is that the Brits will then vote to stay in Europe. There have been four opinion polls on the subject in the past month and they have all shown big majorities for remaining a member of the EU.

Of course, the tortuous process of renegotiation, further chaos in the euro zone and the referendum campaign itself could all change minds. Some analysts point out that, in recent years, referendums on the EU have been unexpectedly lost in countries such as France, Ireland and the Netherlands.

But those were all decisions on changes to European treaties, which limited the risk of a protest vote. Brexit would be a much more fundamental choice - and the Brits are unlikely to take the risk.

If Britain votes to remain a member of the EU, that will remove a potential trigger that the SNP might pull: to demand another referendum on independence for Scotland.

Last week's general election results, in which the SNP won all but three of Scotland's 59 seats, has created the impression of an irresistible surge of support for independence. But, even now, only about half of Scots actually voted for the party.

Expressing nationalist sentiment in a general election is a risk-free way of venting emotion. Voting for independence would be quite another matter since it would raise - once again - difficult questions about currency unions and tax revenues.

The economic case for an independent Scotland has, in fact, taken a bad blow in the past year as oil price has plunged. Such tiresome considerations would come back into focus if and when Scots were asked to vote for independence. In the next five years, some of the gloss is also likely to come off the SNP since all dominant parties eventually generate an opposition.

One legitimate foreign anxiety about the UK is that, even if the country does not actually break up, it is likely to go through a period of acute introspection as it tackles difficult questions about national identity, the Constitution and economic austerity.

The notion, common in Washington, that Mr Cameron's Britain is a smaller actor on the world political stage is hard to argue with.

The House of Commons vote in 2013 to reject military action in Syria increasingly looks like the moment when Britain decided that it was going to turn in its deputy sheriff's badge and leave the United States to play the role of world policeman alone. The Iraq and Afghan wars have sapped Britain's will for foreign wars and that is reflected in declining defence budgets.

But a willingness to drop bombs on the Middle East is not the only measure of internationalism. And the idea that Mr Cameron's Britain is turning into a sleepy and cramped Little England is very wide of the mark.

London is now probably the most globalised city in the world.

Some 37 per cent of its residents were born overseas. It is a hub for finance, transport, culture, tourism and a host of other industries. And while London is a unique place, Britain as a whole remains a trading nation by instinct and a magnet for people and capital from all over the world.

Politics may be pushing the country to look inwards.

But the more powerful social, technological, demographic and economic forces will continue to put Mr Cameron's Britain at the forefront of globalisation.

FINANCIAL TIMES