How do countries want to relate to one another?

Britain is in the process of learning the most salutary lesson the country has had in my lifetime. It is that the seat she has at the Security Council is more a symbol of her history than a recognition of her power in the world today. It seems so obvious. It has been so obvious to the rest of the world for so long. The irony of the lesson being provided by the Irish Taoiseach (head of the Irish government, Prime Minister) is not lost on those who lived through the Irish troubles.

Don’t get me wrong. Britain is a lovely place, beautiful, kind to the less fortunate, with a clement climate and some of the world’s greatest minds. Four of my five children live there. They have all done spectacularly well. Nine of my eleven grandchildren live there. They are all doing spectacularly well. Five of my seven great grandchildren live there. I am confident about their future, too. I spent the last forty years in Singapore because I like Singapore. I still love Britain.

I was going to say that Britain was also one of the most democratic countries I know. My hesitation is that I still don’t believe she really wanted to leave the European Union. Whether manipulation by external forces (I’m not a conspiracy theorist) or a kind of over-confident madness, I don’t know. I do not believe Brexit was sensible, real or intended. An alcoholic morning after. An experiment that went wrong. Whatever the cause, the chickens are coming home to roost in a big way.

What is the objective of any country in today’s world? I suggest it is to retain as much of its culture and independence as is practical in a world of big conglomerates – not only groups of countries but huge companies, too. International digital business is making its presence felt in the corridors of nation-building. Every government’s power is slipping. The pyramid of order has been flattened by Facebook and Internet. Ruling ain’t what it used to be. Anywhere.

My answer to the question is a simple one which locks up the problem in one word – practical. How practical is Britain’s – or any other country’s – independence in the face of advancing China, revolting America, imploding India, frightened Africa, wobbling Europe, recalcitrant Russia, aspiring ASEAN? All these groupings are searches for the perfect balance between independence and collegiality. That balance is itself dynamic, not static. What suits a country at one stage of its development may not do so at another.

The move towards collegiality was upended when Angela Merkel’s welcome to a million immigrants turned sour and a populist movement, enthusiastically fuelled by President Trump, swept across electorates everywhere. That was the moment when ‘Share’ became NEWS (Not Everyone’s Welfare State). The selfish streak it revealed was seen by many to be nothing more than survival. Survival is, after all, what our selfish streak is for.

Once established, relationships are not easy to disentangle. The lingering need to cooperate, and, indeed, to keep some workable affiliation in play, makes the imperative of independence less clearly desirable. The resulting ‘on-off’ connection is seldom comfortable. If in doubt ask Mrs May and Mr Varadkar, respectively the British and Irish Prime Ministers. So the lesson is ‘join the party cautiously’, you may be there for a long time.

Going it alone, on the other hand, is a riskier business than it was when independence first came to countries used to being part of a bigger, if not necessarily comfortable, grouping. How the other half lives is now presented minute-by-minute on the internet. Both parties speak to each other instantly in their native tongues ℅ Bixby. What you had for breakfast I can ask for, for lunch. The benefits your government gives you stimulate my requests in double-quick time.

Countries being sovereign means that they compete. The Olympic Games, for example, was established specifically to promote such competition. As the foundation of capitalist society, competition has proved remarkably successful, although its recent tipping into excess has led us to question its fitness for future purpose. Independence, of its very nature, will ensure competition for a long time to come. How, in such a competitive world, can collaboration also work?

Solve this and you will have the political future of the world at your fingertips. Fail to solve it and you can anticipate wars, though the nature of them is unpredictable. Logically there must be a time when there is world government of sorts on some issues. That time is some way off.

The issues will probably be Human Rights, Trade, Healthcare – and there isn’t a lot more that matters. When we’ve taken care of them we may well need a license to procreate. Meanwhile the fumble and faddle of unions and brexits will ebb and flow. I imagine we will stumble our way forward and muddle through, as so often. It would be better if we decide what we want and then head towards it.

If it is fraternity then we have every hope of a brighter world and a socially fairer one.

But do we see that?

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