We cannot rely on niceties alone to defend UK citizens abroad

My country: What does it mean to me when I’m abroad?

This question forms a remarkably regular part of your thoughts when you’re sitting a thousand miles from home and 347 miles from the nearest British embassy in Madrid. For some, the answer begins and ends with a British passport or the inconvenience of customs or the ridiculously high phone tariffs that signal being abroad. For others, the question never even occurs, but for those of a more pontificating or alarmist disposition, the question becomes whether or not the UK can protect its citizens if they get into real trouble abroad.

This isn’t a proselytising lecture to those of you at home. I would think if you’re reading this article you and me not only loathe drunken louts occupying a beach front in Marbella but despise, despise, despise those that think they’re international men of mystery and kudos once they pass Dover.

No, this is a practical reflection. Personally, and to break my usual habit of writing in the third person, looking at what the UK means to its citizens from the viewpoint of the south of Spain is like standing in a cleanroom. You assess your own opinions and views outwith the context that they were forged and see them from another, more clinical angle. A rare opportunity for someone with a biassed love of British history.

In 1850, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, dispatched a squadron of the Royal Navy to blockade the Greek port of Piraeus in retaliation to the harming of a British subject, David Pacifico, in Athens, and the failure of the government of King Otto to compensate the Gibraltar-born (and therefore British) Pacifico.

When advising the House of Commons on June 25 of that year, Palmerston expounded his actions:

I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong…

I make no secret that most people will know this phrase from The West Wing and President Bartlet wrestling with the want to avenge the murderers Americans versus the responsibilities of a superpower:


Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation? He could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words ‘Civis Romanis’ I am a Roman citizen.

So great was the retribution of Rome, universally understood as certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens. Where was Morris’ protection, or anyone else on that plane? Where is the retribution for the families and where is the warning to the rest of the world that Americans shall walk this earth unharmed, lest the clenched fist of the most mighty military force in the history of mankind comes crashing down on your house!?

In other words, Leo, what the hell are we doing here?

The principle, coined by Cicero, is largely taken for granted by many people who leave British soil. But does it hold true? Am I protected by Civis Britannicus sum?

When Palmerston made his speech it was the age of gunboat diplomacy where Great Britain would literally level a country’s coastline, as it did to China in the Opium Wars, or blockade her trade if it was in her interests or on a matter of principle. The British Empire could, like the Roman Empire before it, yield its unparalleled military and naval supremacy as it wanted.

To those of a Victorian disposition then the 21st Century must seem barbarous. Whereas  the Roman proclamation, coined by Cicero, was a declaration to the world, the words ‘I am British citizen’ are little more than a request to the world, as it says in the preamble of every British passport:

Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

Don’t infringe my rights and grant me privileges and protection – please. The world allows protection for the British citizen because, like the boy who cried wolf, we’ve lost the ability to put into others the fear that we will retaliate with fury and wrath if any of our own should be molested.

The problem today then is the illusion of civility among nations. Empires have fallen and nations, particularly in Europe, have congealed into a bureaucratic mess that gives the impression of a cultural constancy. Or, as Doctor McCoy put it, “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the Universe”.

The citizen has, to borrow from Harold Macmillan, never had it so good with the ease by which they can move from state to state. Grab a passport, off you pop. In Europe, it’s barely even that, and it’s particularly easy if you’re moving abroad to work.

For all this, if something goes wrong, it’s not the gunboats of old but the UK’s soft power and diplomatic guile which are sent in. The protection of our citizens abroad are pinned on three pillars: the UK’s reputation, the rights conferred by a passport, and the hope that Foreign Office civil servants aren’t on their lunch break to answer the phone if we need help in a bind.

To be clear: I am not advocating a return of to the days of Britain laying waste to half the world because it was irked. But something seems to be wrong as if somehow people across the world think that they are no longer testing our metal if they hurt, kidnap, or kill our own. The problem is not confined to the UK, but to all Western countries, particularly in their reaction to the disgusting crimes of ISIS. The Polite indignation of our leaders is the default position.

As a country, for all the ease it takes to go on holiday, we’ve become judgmental about the foreign traveller. From every conversation I’ve ever had on the subject and from every time I’ve read about it in the press, if something goes wrong for a backpacker or traveller then there’s a feeling that it’s a damn shame but that it must have somehow been their fault for going there in the first place. The matter is then dropped, both in the public memory and in the papers until an arrest is made. Then it’s dropped again. And then we cry for blood. And then we forget all about it again.

Yet on the other side of the coin, of those who do go, in the back of the mind is the presumption seldom that the UK Government will come to our rescue if things go south. Bad hospital treatment? Damn your eyes, I’m a British citizen. A mugging? Off with your head sir, the marines are on their way.

We’re prone to take moral hazards because there is this robust feeling that somehow the Government, our Government, will be there for us with a fury and thunder if a hair is touched on our head.

Jeremy Paxman once wrote that the British Empire is a memory that has never faded. To those of a certain age, he’s correct. For those of us of a younger disposition who travel I think it remains, but has morphed completely, from an informed historical expectation to a right, taken for granted, with little explanation as to where it came from.

As a result, we’re prone to take increased moral hazards in where we go: we risk negative outcomes with certain actions because we know there is a net in place to catch you. The phrase is commonly applied to risks in banking and if bankers know the government will bail them out, they’ll gamble more and more.

But isn’t it a fallacy?

How many of us have sworn, cussed and explained in colourful metaphors that “this kind of thing would never happen in the UK????!!!”. The bigger the emergency or inconvenience, the louder the voice asking, nay, demanding help from the UK Government.

Melodrama when sitting down the road in Spain? Perhaps. But take the issue of this writer’s well-being and physical safety. I have a solid understanding of the operations of the Foreign Office, the UK Government, the European Union, and the powers and confines of each. I know Royal Marines will not descend by chopper if I’m hurt, I know that the papers will not make a big deal if I am abhorrently treated.

We have jingoistic reactions only to crises, and it is a peculiar of the habit of the British that is steeped in the genetic history of Empire and the ghosts of prestige that haunt our architecture, our schools and our communities. For all my rationalism, if something happened, reprehensible even, to me at the hands of the Spanish Government or when in Spain – and all joints and limbs are crossed at this stage – I want to be surrounded by the most unforgiving armed bastards that her HM’s Armed Forces have. With haste.

This is the test of patriotism in a congealed age. What is the point of one’s country if it is not there for you in spirit and force?

We are schizophrenic when at once being told that we have should be free our own lives but in times of economic collapse we’re all in it together. We’re told that national problems require national solutions but, reversely, we no longer treat the harm of one of us as a national concern anymore. Is my foreign protection a personal issue, or should it be one of national outcry that demands the most severe reaction and warning if my rights as a British subject are infringed?

Empire is the guilty seed in the traveller’s mind that only comes out to play in an emergency. We’re taught now that the Empire is an anachronism, and even while revisionist debates continue, lead by the historian Niall Ferguson, we as a country have yet to reconcile ourselves to what the Scots would say as ‘nemo me impune lacessit’ (no one provokes me with impunity).

We have made it so easy to go abroad but do not have a net in place to protect our citizens there, holding onto the idea of ‘Civis Britannicus sum while forgetting that needs to be enforced with uncompromising consistency. Cordiality and easy access have not made the world a safer place, just our foreign policy and our leaders have assumed it has.

Edmund Burke once said to love your country your country must be lovely. It isn’t if we don’t defend our own, wherever we are. If we’re told that the economy is a national problem then so too is the protection of every single one of our people. The first and only duty for a government to be is the protection of its citizens. Its duties should not need to be spelt out.

When concluding some words have been going round in my head when writing this piece:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Like most things in this life, it’s made better when read by John Gielgud.