The cabinet’s clumsy diplomacy — and Britain’s place in the modern world


I wrote last week for The New European on the way that Britain’s confrontational political culture does not necessarily travel well — with consequences for the coming Brexit negotiations. There’s an extract here.

I was in Aarhus for a meeting of the Erasmus Journalism programme on which I teach. As a former correspondent who has always loved travel and languages, there was plenty to interest me: discussion of how we can make the programme work better across different countries, observation of differences of culture and interpretation.

Yet these are things we have come to value less in the UK. Yes, there is the talk of a ‘truly global Britain’, but this is an empty phrase. It is thrown around too frequently by people who too often say ‘we’ve been fine on our own before, and we will be again’. They are often thinking of Britain’s imperial past. A common failing of the Brexiteer is to fail to understand Britain’s place in the modern world.

David Davis has some Ministerial experience in the Foreign Office, but that was more than 20 years ago. His recent meetings with EU officials did not give the impression he had the necessary relationships for smooth negotiations. Liam Fox’s most prominent international connections were with the Atlantic Bridge – a link to Tea Party activists. None of their biographies lists a foreign language among their skills. Any good will which Boris Johnson may have built up in that respect by speaking in French last summer has been more than outweighed since by less diplomatic interventions on prosecco trade wars and WW2 punishment beatings.

The Brexiteers are acting as if they are masters of their own destiny, using that imagined power to wield their weapons of political confrontation abroad. Our political culture does not necessarily travel well. Prime Minister’s questions may make for great TV, but the way our MPs taunt each other like football hooligans – remember the old point about two swords’ length between the benches in parliament – reflects an underlying aggression which may not deliver the best results across the channel and beyond.

You can read the rest of the article in the March 10-16 edition of ‘The New European’.


1864: Denmark’s darkest day, and a chapter in Journalism History

The battlefield at Dybbøl today.

The battlefield at Dybbøl, August 2013.

A small country embracing new ideas of democracy faced a much larger, and militarily more powerful, neighbour.  The cause was disputed territory. They may have been counting on the support of global powers. It was not forthcoming. Defeat, and loss of land, soon followed.

Five years ago this month I was reporting on the aftermath of Georgia’s war with Russia – recently ended then – over South Ossetia.

I was reminded of that last week when, spending this August in a more relaxing way, I was in Jutland, visiting the site of Denmark’s catastrophic military defeat against the military power of Prussia in 1864.

For there seemed to be parallels between Denmark’s experience of defeat then, and Georgia’s, almost a century and a half later. I also came across some names in the history of reporting conflict which were new to me, and about which it would be interesting to learn more.

The disputed territory in this case was Schleswig-Holstein; the political system, a new constitution which Denmark decided should apply to Schleswig as well as to Denmark itself. Prussia and Austria said this breached an earlier treaty, and launched a military campaign in response. (You can read more historical detail on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website).

A series of political and military blunders, as well as their enemies’ superior weaponry, saw the Danish forces crushed, and the territory lost.

The Danish Army's defences were left in ruins

The Danish Army’s defences were left in ruins.

Even today, 1864 is considered a seminal moment in Danish history: influencing the country far beyond the century in which it suffered the defeat at Dybbøl. Next year, the 150th anniversary of the battle is likely to be marked with ceremonies and mass media coverage. This is not history lost in the past.

In Denmark, recent books by Tom Buk-Swienty  have complemented school history lessons, as has the 1864 museum I visited last week.

Mr Buk-Swienty seems to have done impressive archive research of both written sources and photographs – the latter the major leap forward in reporting on war in that era. Contemporary newspapers could not yet carry their work, but the photographers were there.

So were the correspondents. A small part of the museum’s exhibition is dedicated to their work, and I came across two new bylines: William E. Hall, and Auberon Herbert – both apparently sent out from London to cover the war.

They were a new breed, then – presumably inspired by William Howard Russell’s trailblazing journey to the Crimea the previous decade, and helped by the advent of the telegraph. As advances in military technology shaped the conflict, so advances in communications technology shaped the way it was reported.

The novelty of war correspondents was even reflected in fiction. Herman Bang’s Tine, set in a village on the edge of the war zone, includes as minor characters two British reporters: referred to, using the English word in Danish, as ‘gentlemen’.

In journalism history, especially the reporting of conflict, the 1860s are more often remembered for the changes which came with the American Civil War – but the growth in the number of correspondents, the arrival on the battlefield of photographers, and the advent of the telegraph were all factors in this European conflict, too.

Part of the reconstructed stockade at the 1864 historical centre.

Part of the reconstructed stockade at the 1864 historical centre.

Photographs ©James Rodgers