Why ​Britain Is the Waylon Smithers of International Relations

What's a country meant to do after a five-century-long killing spree, when it's no longer the biggest, baddest, craziest power out there? Suck up to China.

by Sam Kriss
20 October 2015, 6:00pm

Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping, who visits the UK this week. Photo: Global Panorama via Flickr

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

What's the point of Britain? A short century ago, this country produced a significant portion of the world's tin trays, steamships, literary fiction, and dead bodies. Now, we produce Sherlock. What's a country meant to do after a five-century-long killing spree, when it's no longer the biggest, baddest, craziest power out there? Easy. Now, we seek out the world's biggest tyrant and deftly deploy the monarchy—our historical embodiment of trumped-up refinement—to foot-kiss around them.

This is Britain's role in the 21st century: the global henchman, the Waylon Smithers of international relations.

For a long time, the object of our ministrations was the United States, but now there's a new bully on the block. This week sees the first Chinese state visit to the UK since 2005, with President Xi Jinping set to wander idly around the country like a wealthy gangster at a car dealership while the British ruling class springs into action to genuflect before him.

It's bound to be a great trip for all involved. As Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming said at the weekend, "The British people are very gentlemen, very smart. They know how to behave on occasions like this."

Britain has now decided to be China's best friend in the West, an alignment that a tickled-pink Xi has praised as a "visionary and strategic choice," and like all good friendships it's based on the exchange of vast sums of money. This follows a five-day visit to Beijing from George Osborne, Cameron's very own personal butler, in which he won the Chinese state media's "Good Boy Award" for not making a big fuss over human rights.

Of course, rights won't be entirely off the table this time: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been granted a brief interview with Xi, in which he can hector the Chinese leader over the status of dissidents in the country before shuffling back into opposition.

But maybe it's best to put the human rights issue aside. According to Amnesty International, Britain is "trading away" its reputation as a champion of human freedom in its dealings with China—but what reputation is that, exactly? Britain sends teenagers to prison for crass tweets and burning paper poppies, we deport asylum seekers to countries where they'll be killed for their sexuality or their political beliefs, we have more security cameras per person than any other nation—and while China's foreign policy is based on a principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, in Britain's pervious role as America's sidekick we were only too happy to pour molten destruction on any Middle Eastern nation to step out of line. Corbyn might be well within his rights to take issue with Xi's record on civil liberties if he's speaking in a purely personal capacity, but as the leader of a Labour Party that played its part in the above abuses, he doesn't really have a leg to stand on.

Photo by Will Coutts

You can imagine Xi being shown around the British Museum: "I think we have some of your old stuff here, fancy it back? We've also got some Elgin Marbles knocking around, just gathering dust, really, in case you fancy building a new Acropolis? Come up to Manchester, buy a football team, buy the whole city, we're not doing much with it. Please, love us. Be our friend. Europe hates us, America scorns us, Africa keeps going on about all the things we did to them ages ago; we're so alone. Why not take Wales as a going-home present?"

You can imagine the future: China will have its century in the sun, and Britain will be there to attend to its every whim. Then it'll be India or Brazil or Nigeria, and the British will sidle into service accordingly. Great powers will rise and fade away, but Britain will survive.

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