15 Jul 2014

William Hague, Angelina Jolie and British imperial decline

In his wilderness years, between being leader of the Tory party in opposition and Foreign Secretary, William Hague wrote the biography of William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister who presided over Britain’s rise as a colonial power in the mid 18th century.


Pitt (pictured below) was in power when Britain lost the war of American independence and again when it trounced Napoleon at the battle of Trafalgar. This was a time when Britain’s military and diplomatic power swayed empires, when Britannia did indeed rule the waves and – win or lose – the impact was felt across the globe.

In an interview last summer Mr Hague reflected: “It’s the aftermath of empire – the withdrawal of Britain from too many places in the world, a kind of psychology of decline that we inherited, in many ways. It’s been difficult, but this is what I’ve set out to challenge in the Foreign Office.”

Alas, that was beyond the reach of any modern day British politician.

Read more: Warzone rape – Angelina Jolie and William Hague fly to Africa

“It’s not a personal failure to make an impact but people just don’t ask the British foreign secretary to solve crises any more, not even as much as they did a decade ago,” said a recently retired ambassador.

Britain’s decline as a colonial power in the last century was matched by the rise of the US. In the cold war the choice between the US and USSR was stark, but in the period that has followed, Britain has struggled to find a role other than as US ally and disciple.


Mr Hague, like the last dozen or more foreign secretaries, has regarded the alliance with the US as more important than Britain’s role in Europe. The result is that Britain is always playing a subservient position, backing up the US, often when other European countries are reluctant. The British public, especially the tabloids, long for a time when what Britain said and did mattered, while the rest of the world looks on, somewhat baffled.

“The gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us is enormous,” said the former  ambassador. “It’s a myth that the Foreign Office is a great department of state. Britain is just not relevant in the way we used to be.”

Read more: William Hague stands down – ‘Renewal in politics is good’

Under Labour, as the Foreign Office declined, the power and budget of the Department for International Development grew. The Tories have continued that policy, reaching the target of 0.7 per cent of GDP now being devoted to aid. As a result, Britain’s policy in Africa has become more about the dispersal of funds and less about political or diplomatic influence. If the Foreign Office has five staff in country and DfID has 20, and the latter have a huge budget and the former almost none, which would you regard as the more important?


Some mocked Mr Hague when he teamed up with the film star Angelina Jolie to campaign for an end to sexual violence in conflict. I disagree. I think that as an historian he understood the limits of his power as foreign secretary and calculated that this was an area where he could have an impact. He will continue as the prime minister’s special envoy on the subject even after he is no longer foreign secretary.

When people say his attempt to stop wartime rape is impossibly idealistic, Mr Hague frequently refers to William Wilberforce, the great 18th century campaigner who did more than anyone else to bring an end to slavery, and who happened to be a friend of Pitt the Younger. Maybe Wilberforce will be the subject of  Mr Hague’s next historical biography when he has left parliament and can think more about the glories of the past and less about the limits of modern day politics.

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