United Kingdom and Poland: a new “special relationship”?

It was rather a bumpy ride. Even if there was never a war between Poland and the United Kingdom the bilateral relations between two countries over the last century were rather sinusoidal. Recently, Brexit complicated Polish-British relations even more, but the Russian aggression on Ukraine in 2022 lifted them up and took them to a whole new level: strategic cooperation. As long as the security issues will be a priority, British-Polish relations remain strong.

Land and sea powers

Nobel Prize winner and poet, Czesław Miłosz wrote in his book „Family Europe” some words about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an electoral monarchy established as such in 1569. The common Polish-Lithuanian state connected communities, nations, and lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea, being at the time the greatest land power of Europe and the gate for the continental connections with Asia. In the same historical moment, in the other part of Europe, another great power emerged the United Kingdom. One was by land power, the other by sea power.

The word Commonwealth used by Czesław Miłosz to describe the Polish-Lithuanian state is nothing more than a calque of the British solution, the beginning of which was the union of England and Scotland in 1707 — historically a bit later, but much better known in the world. In his book the Lithuanian-born poet also wrote about the kind of worldview, at the time when Queen Elizabeth I ruled in London; an imagination in which „the masts of the fast ships chasing Spanish galleons off Jamaica and Barbados were mostly from my country”. This „my country” for the poet was exactly the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — for the world of those times, rich in forests, wood, and crops, which it traded with practically the entire world at that time, especially the Brits and Dutch. If the early „globalization” of the 17th century was based on the invention of modern ships — caravels — it could not have happened without Central European Commonwealth, which provided all the necessary raw materials for their construction.

Let this connection, legendary on one hand, and very concrete on the other, serve as a proper description of Polish-British relations. When the Battle of Hastings in 1066 took place on England’s southeast coast, Bolesław II the Bold, third King of Poland from the Piast dynasty, ruled in the first Polish capital, Gniezno; when the English Magna Carta was presented in 1215, the first Polish immunity privilege for the Church was granted by the Piast dynasty dukes: the clergy gained considerable independence from the state authority. Developed later different kinds of charters of liberties, e.g. Statue of Kalisz or Statutes of Nieszawa — the signature mark of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth law order — had the very same core value, as the British Habeas Corpus Act from 1679: ensuring the freedom of the individual.

It seems that Czesław Miłosz’s intuition — although not explicitly expressed — works to the conclusion that up to a certain point, the history over the Vistula River can be seen as a mirror image of that of the River Thames. The link between those two is the value dearest to both nations: freedom.

Shadows Over the Channel

Even if the British-Polish relations are long and rich in history, the last 100 years were crucial. After the partition of Poland in the 18th century, because of which the country disappeared from the maps for 123 years, Britain was along with its allies France and later the United States, crucial in securing Polish independence at the end of World War I. But during the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I, the British delegation under David Lloyd George opposed France and the United States’ territorial concessions towards Poland as excessive and potentially provocative. Lloyd George was influential in making the city of Gdańsk an autonomous city-state rather than a Polish territory. Another major point of disagreement was the point of the Polish eastern borders. During the Polish-Soviet War (the 1920s), the support of the British government was with Poland, but peace was by far the preferred option resulting in Lord Curzon’s drawing of the artificial Curzon Line as part of an attempted mediated peace. The agreement was not adopted, and the so-called Curzon Line became one of the most crucial disagreements between the Polish leader Józef Piłsudski and his counterparts, not only in the UK.

With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s, the British and the Poles began to see more of a point in friendly relations. On 31 March 1939, the British Empire made even a guarantee of independence to Poland, and 25th of August, an Anglo-Polish military alliance was signed but it didn’t work to defend Poland from Germany.

Exactly that event was one of two phenomena, which weigh heavily on the assessment of Polish-British relations during World War II. The lack of aid for Poland adequate to earlier declarations in the face of the aggression of Nazi Germany in September 1939 overshadowed the bilateral relations for many years. The second was related to the transfer of Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence and the taking away from Poland of part of the eastern lands located outside the mentioned above Curzon Line after World War II. Some other controversies were caused by the fact that the Polish forces were not invited to the Victory Parade, which took place in London on June 8, 1946, after the defeat of the Third Reich. Representatives of dozens of countries from around the world paraded through the streets of the British capital but there were no Poles among them even if The Polish Armed Forces in the West were the fourth largest Allied army in the fight against Hitler’s troops. From the Polish side, bilateral relations were also overshadowed by the issue of diminishing the merits of Polish cryptologists who managed to break the Enigma machine cipher just before the war. The British cryptographer Sir Alan Turing was based on the achievements of Polish mathematicians, for which he himself thanked those interested.

Freedom Fighters

Even if the Polish-British relations can be considered sinusoidal over the last century, one thing is clear: the history of the world goes on at its own pace, regardless of personal dissensions or even specific interests. One event can change everything.  An example of such would be any attempt at an imperial takeover of Europe. Historically speaking, it always made the two countries fight side by side against this danger. Such a breakthrough moment was undoubtedly the moment of Russian aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

It is difficult to say that this was the beginning of a new opening between London and Warsaw, as this date back much earlier, when Poland entered the European Union in 2004 or even when Margaret Thatcher strongly support the Polish fight against communism in the 1980s. However, the Russian aggression against Ukraine made the relations between London and Warsaw stronger, than anytime before. Such strategic cooperation nowadays has been based on common values (freedom), economy, military cooperation, and the Polish diaspora, which is one of the largest national minorities in the UK. Politically speaking, the Polish community in Great Britain is very important: 800 000 Polish citizens live almost in every corner of the UK. In Poland, almost everybody knows someone who has gone there.

But even that, the British-Polish alliance stems primarily from a common — and centuries-old — sense of the Russian threat, knowledge of Russian imperialism, and ideological attachment to freedom. Poland, like no other country in the world, has learned what Russian colonialism and imperialism are, which are widely reported today by the media, to take Bucza or Irpień as examples.

On the other hand, after leaving the EU, the United Kingdom wanted to demonstrate many times that, yes, it left the EU political structures, but it is still involved in European affairs, it wants to build relations with its allies, but in a different way. The war in Ukraine gave the UK the opportunity to demonstrate this commitment. Great Britain has to prove that it has not become close to the world’s „little England” and through its involvement in Ukraine, it proves just that. For Poland, the attractiveness of Great Britain stems also from the fact that it is a credible and at the same time a significant partner in terms of security. There are many countries that have a similar view of Russia, that understand that what is happening in Ukraine is not an episode, but another element in a chain of events that began in Georgia in 2008, or even in Chechnya — such as the Baltic states — but unfortunately, they are of little military importance. United Kingdom is still one of the most important NATO members.

The permanence of interests and things, compared to the impermanence of people, is astonishing.