Britain’s shaken reputation

By John Lloyd
July 30, 2012

It was rude of Mitt Romney to cast doubt on Britain’s ability to successfully host the London Olympics, but it wasn’t stupid. His briefers on the London trip will have had files full of stories from the British papers, whose front pages had little else on them for days but forebodings over security lapses because of a screwup by G4S, the company hired to keep the Games safe. Britain hasn’t, in the past few years, been distinguished for excellence: Why assume the Games would be an exception?

For any foreigner, especially any American, alert to British events over the past year or two, these stories play against a backdrop of the perception of the British capital as “Londonistan,” a place whose tolerance of radical Islamism spills over into fatally dangerous carelessness. A city where, almost exactly a year ago, gangs of young men and women roamed the streets for several days, smashing shops, looting their contents, burning buildings, beating up passersby and isolated policemen. To voice doubts on U.S. television about London’s safety is not stupid, because doubts are in order.

Three institutions central to the world’s opinion of the United Kingdom have been and remain very badly shaken. These are the armed forces, the press and the banking system – three systems that, for two centuries or more, evoked real pride for the British people. The damage done – in two cases self-administered – has projected images of Britain that sharply contradict the sturdy, trusty, intelligently skeptical stereotype that the British like to think is a mirror of themselves.

The military is the outlier: It has not been the author of its own fall from grace, and is still thought of as efficient, well-equipped and well led. The wounds to its pride and efficacy have come from political considerations, of which the most important was to pull out of Iraq with an unconvincing rationale that the job it was doing, around the southern city of Basra, was done. In fact, its exit meant a U.S. brigade had to be deployed to cover the gap in security, despite the U.S. military itself being hard-pressed. In Afghanistan, a British withdrawal – this time in step with a similar U.S. exercise – is scheduled to begin next year. Several senior officers warn that the Afghan forces cannot provide security. Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Helmand, was quoted as saying in May that the local military “are not close to being able to take over from Western forces unaided, and I don’t believe that they would be able to contain the insurgency unaided by 2014, which is the date we are due to leave.”

Back home, the numbers of military personnel and bases and the ability to project force have been slashed so deeply that a slew of senior commanders have resigned, some remaining tactfully silent, others loud in their protest that the British armed forces now lack the capacity to fight even one, let alone multiple, large actions. Britain, with France, had been an at least partial exception to the somewhat dubious decline of Europe’s ability to pull its weight in military engagements (a cause of increasing concern to a vastly indebted U.S.) From having been a partial solution, Britain joins the problem. It will, said a report last autumn from the Royal United Services Institute, “never again be among the global [military] superpowers.”

The mess of the press has no politicians to blame, even if politicians were too eager to bow to its power. The Leveson Inquiry – set up to investigate the ethics, behavior and political heft of British newspapers after the News of the World scandal – has revealed, over the past nine months, a much greater underworld of tabloid phone hacking, bribery, blackmail and radical distortion. British journalists thought their press had some of the most robust, fearless, revelatory, pomposity-pricking newspapers at the popular end of the trade, and that it had the best analytical journalism in the world at the other end. Where the latter can still be defended, the former can’t, or at best only with major qualification. The low opinion many American journalists had of British popular papers – and in the view of some, not just popular papers – has received a long, embarrassing confirmation.

Most recent, and in the long run most potentially damaging, has been the revelations that Barclays Bank indulged in various forms of fixing the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, the most important money market rate in the financial world. It was an American, Bob Diamond, Barclays’ chief executive, who took the rap after Westminster legislators had a cathartic explosion of contempt at a committee hearing. But it was London, with its light-touch regulation and the apparently threadbare tradition of gentlemanly conduct, that provided the context. Diamond and his colleagues would have been less likely to be as free to get away with fixing the rate to benefit themselves in New York: investigations continue, and worse may follow. London kept the job of setting the rate because of its centrality to global financial transactions. Reputation is all in such a case, and London’s trembles on the brink, a much more troublesome danger than the loss of the already doubtful reputation of the tabloids.

As this is written, Mitt Romney’s fears of an Olympic disaster are unfounded. The games started well (if not, yet, for the host nation in the medals tally); security has not been breached; the opening ceremony, a skillfully orchestrated post-modern mélange heavily dusted with that famous British humor, was a nice counterpoint to Chinese triumphalism last time. Britain is a considerable country yet, with large reserves. But in the long last act of the second Elizabethan Age, it becomes clear that much that distinguished the country needs new scripts and better acting. Not, or not mainly, by the overburdened politicians but by citizens, who have to live up to that proud name. When the Olympic circus leaves town, it may, if all continues to go as well as its opening, help restore some lost reputation. Pride can come after a fall – so long as the fall is understood, and the causes repaired.

PHOTO: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is recognized by pedestrians at Grosvenor Place in London, July 27, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

6 comments

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Romney was right. Look at all the empty seats, dignitaries tickets sold on the black market and the pathetic attempts to fill the empty seats with soldiers.

Couple that to the almost nauseatingly political correct opening ceremony that does not reflect the reality of Britain.

About as much dignity and graciousness as a sheep shearing competition.

What a mess.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

One should be grateful to Mr Lloyd for demonstrating so conclusively that our op-ed writers, at least, are nothing exceptional. Who, out there in the real world, uses a criticism which he himself considers “unfounded” upon which to hang a litany of his own, utterly unrelated gripes?

When were our armed forces ever equipped with what they deserved? Not since at least the Crimea.

Who, except our hacks, ever thought our hacks amounted to anything? Nobody.

Who is immune to the fall-out from Big Bang in the 1980′s? No country.

All Mr Lloyd’s gripes amount to is that we’re a small country who manages to act a bit bigger than we really are. And perhaps only an op-ed writer could distort that into a criticism.

As for any bearing this might have on our ability to hold a festival: well, we’ve twice pulled the Olympics out of the fire when nobody else would, in 1908 and 1948, and in recent decades we’ve twice held the Commonwealth Games (the only other festival that comes close in size) entirely without incident.

One appreciates that Mr Lloyd needs to earn the odd crust, and being codgerly about the Olympics is currently fashionable. But surely he can do better than merely being an icon of the very fall into impotence and slapdash work that so seems to annoy him?

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

[...] Britain’s shaken reputation [...]

“Londonistan” – love that meme

hail the commonwealth!

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

“a place whose tolerance of radical Islamism spills over into fatally dangerous carelessness”

Britons complain quietly about the overruning of their country by foreigners; a few complain loudly, but nothing is stopping it. It’s sad to see this once proud and great country so unassertive and passive.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

It most certainly was stupid.

British people and papers are habitually cynical about everything. But when outsiders get involved, that is another matter. It’s like:- “I can say what I like about my sister, you can’t”. And he came right into my house to say it.

The function of this trip is to make Romney look presidential on the world stage. If nothing got written about it, that would be fine. The fact that he can’t even get good press in the UK shows him as useless in the extreme with allies.

How will that win him votes?

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

From outside of the UK the British Star looks very good. Have a look at China today, their investment is sitting there collecting dust. The British show has impressed everyone who saw it. The fact that the British Army managed to move troops into place in a short period of time is a logistical master piece. Try the same thing in Germany or the USA. I really do not think that having Blackwater mercenaries doing the security is the right way to go. Where I do fault the British is letting Romney into the country without going through the UK Health inspection.

Posted by Lightharry | Report as abusive