In this post, Ben Wynne historicises the term ‘Global Britain’ in the 20th century. He argues that there is nothing new about the sentiment behind this phrase and suggests it should not be dismissed as a recent invention of Brexit supporters.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is often put down to a desire to regain something of its imperial past[1].  Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s vision of a ‘Global Britain’, as outlined in a speech at Lancaster House in January 2017, certainly set out to present Britain as having an important role to play in the world[2].  This mood music has become, if anything, louder under her successor, Boris Johnson.  In closing his preface to the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Johnson stated that he was ‘profoundly optimistic about the UK’s place in the world’ and that he looked forward with confidence ‘as we shape the world of the future’.[3] This belief in Britain’s global role can seem perplexing to those who think of Britain as having lost its status as a world power years ago.  However, there is plenty of evidence that there is nothing new about the sentiment which lies behind the term ‘Global Britain’ and that this view of the country has some basis in practical experience.  ‘Global Britain’ cannot simply be dismissed as the deluded invention of supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The broad outlines of Britain’s demise as a world power are familiar.  At the end of World War II, Britain was one of three victorious powers and possessed an empire, large armed forces and an international financial system based on the pound sterling which was rivalled only by the United States and the dollar.  By 1970 the empire was largely gone, the armed forces had shrunk, the country’s share of export markets was falling and sterling was losing its role as an international trading currency.  Pressures on public expenditure led to the withdrawal of British forces from the Persian Gulf and the Far East in the early 1970s.  Speaking in the House of Commons in February 1970, Roy Jenkins (the then Labour Government’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) lamented that Britain had taken too long to accept a ‘European orientation’ and that its attempt to compete with the United States and the Soviet Union as a third ‘great power’ had damaged its economy[4].  The country’s situation appeared stark to many contemporaries and there was a minor industry in publications bemoaning the ‘decline’ of the country.

This view of Britain’s demise can, however, be overdone.  Rather than compare Britain to the United States, as is often done, it is more revealing to compare Britain to  France, Germany and Japan which are a closer match to it economically and militarily. In 1928 Britain was the second largest exporter in the world (the United States being the largest), Germany the third and France the fourth[5].  By 2017, China ranked second, Germany third with Japan fourth and France and Britain a joint fifth[6].  In 2018, Britain had the fifth largest defence expenditure in the world – ahead of France, Japan and Germany[7].  Britain’s relative importance has declined but its peer group has changed little in about one hundred years.

While the end of the British Empire seems like a major milestone in Britain’s decline as a world power, its loss has made less difference to Britain’s status than one might assume.  The empire was of limited value to Britain by the late 1950s.   In 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan asked his civil servants to assess the economic value of the empire and the answers he received were notably lacking in enthusiasm.  Officials saw the empire as a cost.  ‘Total demands for investment from all quarters are well beyond the present capacity of the United Kingdom’s resources; and unless it proves possible to obtain sufficient help with long-term investment in the Colonies – much of it bound to be unremunerative – their economic standards may fall.’  These ‘demands’ were also described as a ‘burden’.[8]

The rapid disposal of the imperial ‘burden’ by the late 1960s did not, therefore, of itself challenge Britain’s self-image as a world power.  A reduction in military power was, however, a different matter and as a result Britain did not in fact adopt an entirely ‘European orientation’ from the 1970s.  While the Royal Navy left its bases in the Persian Gulf and Singapore, it soon began sending ‘Task Groups’ on tours outside Europe, beginning with a tour of the Far East in 1973[9].  The navy returned to patrolling the Gulf in 1980 following the outbreak of the Iran/Iraq war and has not left since[10].  The retention of bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus and Bahrain (shared with the United States in the case of Bahrain) facilitated such deployments and the Royal Navy also continued to have access to facilities in Singapore.  While the army was overwhelmingly focussed on the defence of Europe, it maintained a presence in Belize, Brunei and Kenya for a mixture of training and defence purposes[11].

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Britain’s armed forces have been very active outside Europe.  While this has been in response to growing instability in the Middle East, Britain has chosen to become much more involved than other European countries.  Over 50,000 personnel were committed in the war to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 and 46,000 personnel were committed at the peak of the second Gulf War in 2003[12].  British forces in Afghanistan, sent in 2002 as part of a NATO force, reached about 5,000 in 2006 and approximately 9,000 by 2009[13].  Military commitments in the Middle East in the last thirty years have been comparable to the period between the world wars when Britain was the leading military power in the region.  For comparison, in 1930 there were about 12,000 British troops in the region with most of them stationed in Egypt.[14]

If the wars of the last thirty years were not sufficient evidence of Britain’s continuing aspirations, the two opening sentences of the foreword to the report of the Strategic Security and Defence Review of 2010, published long before the term ‘Global Britain’ was coined, remove any doubt: ‘Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions. We have a proud history of standing up for the values we believe in and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come.’[15] There is even a reluctance to accept that Britain is one of the middle ranking powers.  Writing about the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute notes that ‘there remains a political reluctance to talk openly of the UK as a middle power for fear of being seen as “declinist”’.[16]

There is, therefore, nothing new about British aspirations to a global role.  These aspirations cannot be explained by a hankering after an empire which was swiftly disposed of when it became a ‘burden’.  While British economic and military power are completely dwarfed by the United States and China, Britain remains a peer of France, Germany and Japan as it was before World War II.  The term ‘Global Britain’ has a great deal of continuity behind it and it cannot simply be dismissed as a deluded invention of those who supported Britain’s departure from the European Union.  As this post demonstrates, the sentiment it expresses has long influenced British governments.


Ben Wynne is an independent researcher, librarian and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and City, University of London.  He is a former manager of Information Services at the LSE Library. 

Featured Image: Boris Johnson speaking at Chatham House in London, 2 December 2016. From Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office on Flickr.


[1]    Gary Younge, Britain’s Imperial Fantasies Have Given Us Brexit, The Guardian, 3 February 2018, (accessed 7 July 2021)

[2]    The Country’s Negotiating Objectives for Exiting the EU: PM speech, 17 January 2017, (accessed 23 June 2021)

[3]    Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, CP 403, (London, HMSO, 2021), 5, (accessed 7 July 2021)

[4]    Hansard, HC Deb 25 February 1970, vol. 796: cc1247 (accessed 7 July 2021)

[5]    League of Nations, Statistical Yearbook 1929, Table 89, 149

[6]    Pocket world in figures, (London, The Economist, 2020), 32

[7]    Ibid. 82

[8]    CAB 134/1556, CPC(57) 30, 6 September 1957,  “Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies: Memorandum for Cabinet Colonial Policy Committee by Sir Norman Brook”, in British Documents on the End of Empire, Series A, vol. 4 (London, Stationery Office, 2000), 34

[9]    John Roberts, Safeguarding the Nation: the Story of the Modern Royal Navy (Barnsley, Seaforth Publishing, 2009), 100

[10]  Ibid. 135

[11]  Ashley Jackson, “Empire and Beyond: the Pursuit of Overseas National Interests in the Late Twentieth Century”, English Historical Review, 122, no. 499 (2007): 1353,

[12]  “10 British Military Campaigns Since the End of the Cold War”, Daily Telegraph, 27 Sept. 2014, (quoting the Royal United Services Institute as source), (accessed 25 June 2021)

[13]  House of Commons Library, The Cost of International Military Operations, SN/SG/3139, (London, Parliament, 2012), (accessed 23 June 2021)

[14]  League of Nations, “British Empire: Great Britain & Northern Ireland”, Armaments Yearbook 1930/31, Table no. 5, 115, (accessed 7 July 2021)

[15]  Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Cm 7948, (London, Stationery Office, 2010), 3, (accessed 7 July 2021)

[16]  Malcolm Chalmers, The Integrated Review: the UK as a Reluctant Middle Power, RUSI Occasional Paper, (London, Royal United Services Institute, 2021), 2, (accessed 25 June 2021)