At a meeting of British business leaders this week an Ambassador of an ASEAN country remarked, "I want the British to come to my country. When we look at the world we compare ourselves as a former French colony to our neighbouring and former British colonies. The difference is very clear. The British took something but left everything. The French took everything and left us with nothing."
From de Gaulle to Delors the French have played a pivotal role in the UK relationship with Europe. Speaking of the UK since the referendum, a French commentator says, "We seem to be a beacon of hope in an ocean of Anglo Saxon despair. You are despondent and morose. We have exchanged roles. We have become much more confident. There is something I would describe as an emotional game of musical chairs in Europe having occurred. In London you have stopped feeling superior to the French and since Macron we have stopped feeling inferior to the Germans. So there is a new balance of emotions so to speak." Perhaps. But I have not.
The France we love does not always behave as a loved one might. Since the referendum the UK discussion has largely been an economic one. Exploring whether our prosperity will be damaged or improved on EU Exit. Whilst some fail to see the political and economic opportunity of EU Exit, the French are seeing the political project that is the EU as a political opportunity for their leadership of it. But the history of French leadership, as the Ambassador correctly describes, is something that may well leave the French to benefit at its partner countries expense.
Far from the EU recognising that our country nearly broke ourselves for the freedom of its now-member states, we see some in the EU apparently revelling in our perceived discomfort as we emerge from what they clearly see as the political and economic "security blanket" of a construct far removed from our inherent understanding of how a democratic institution should appear. And the reason we speak of Europe's economic benefit is because we have never understood its political outcomes. But our people did.
Time and again since the referendum the UK has assured the EU of our steadfast commitment to its defence and security and indeed its political project, wishing it success and support. The PM has made some of the finest speeches we have heard in 20 years in international affairs and developed a Global Britain narrative that is now intrinsic to our national lexicon. We have behaved with courtesy, kindness and politeness to our EU neighbours.
But as I learned many years ago and across my 25 year international career, too often politeness and courtesy can be mis-interpreted as weakness. We must not let it.
We have a golden opportunity to spread our wings in a world we understand, from the confines of a European construct we do not.
This week HMG published its draft text for discussion for the Implementation (transition) period. This is written in good faith and if we accept that a transition period is necessary then we must accept to abide by the rules of the EU during it. But some of its language reveals what we had to agree to in joining the EU in the first place recognising for instance that the, "The UK also wishes to discuss the means by which Union law will apply to the UK during the [transition] Period, recognising that the UK will no longer be a Member State and its legislature will no longer be a national parliament of the EU." So there it is. Our Parliament of 1,000 years had become a "national" parliament of the EU and the laws of the EU were considered "Union" law and thereby more important than our own. Not quite how so many had presented the implications of EU membership to our people. Not quite what people expected in electing MP's to their own Parliament. And if this language is only being revealed now, how great should be our faith in our people for sensing that it might have been at the referendum. Itself the reason they voted to leave.
But if we continue to underestimate how much we have given to the world and to misunderstand who we are, then we will greatly limit our ability to inspire and give more to the world at the very moment that it needs us most.
For our own British "political project" is one that can illuminate and excite those overseas who are denied what we hold so dear. To encourage and illuminate them by what we hold dear. In a supreme act of inspiration. The gift of freedom, of representation and a voice that speaks for those who have none. And in those places less fortunate than ours, who have been silenced by the despair of poverty, unrepresentative government and abuse of human rights at times, an abuse of the human understanding of what it is to "go about one's life and business" safe and secure in the knowledge that one exists in a lawful country governed by its own people by and for the people. As we do.
On any measure but democracy, the world has improved for 200 years. Though we should have none at all, we now have the lowest levels of poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality. The highest levels of education, vaccination and human longevity. But 44% of our planet fails to live in a democracy and that is lower today than it was 20 years ago. So if we connect one part of our global vision to inspiring democracy by our devotion to it then we can be assured of a very bright future.
Our Foreign Secretary speaks of the British diaspora as 6 million "beacons of light" across the world. And their source are actually constitutional ones, founded on English Common Law, Faith, Monarchy and Parliament. And together they form a sum of parts so powerful, so "Britannia cool", so exciting that we must begin to see ourselves as those outside us see us already. As the Ambassador does. From a country 7,000 miles away.