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.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.
See online: Britain’s shaken reputation