Still Living in the Shadow of the Empire State
December 11th 2009
Britain might be tottering on the edge, subdued by multiple crises: the economic disaster, the crisis of our political classes and system, and the ongoing catastrophes of British foreign policy and the wars, invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet seldom do the mainstream political commentariat join all the dots, do their history and put all of this in a longer perspective.
Hats off then to ‘The Economist’ Bagehot column last week, ‘The Tiger under the Table’ (1), which thankfully was not about Tiger Woods’ extra-curriculum activities which has so held the world’s media spellbound this last week.
Instead, they turned their attention to the manner in which all of the above crises, and the domestic unravelling of Ukania and Britishness in Scotland and elsewhere is the product of ‘the many ways in which Britain is living in the shadow of its Empire’ and that it is ‘perhaps, increasingly – trapped by its imperial past’.
Bagehot even made the link between empire, the City of London and the anti-industrial ethos of much of Britain, which coloured its establishment through the zenith of British power and status to today:
If empire is the backdrop of Britain’s foreign entanglements, it is also implicated in the country’s exposure to another great debacle, the financial crash. The City and the empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it. The empire thus bequeathed commercial habits, and an overmighty financial sector, which British taxpayers now have cause to regret. (Some historians trace Britain’s trouble with real engineering, as well as the financial type, to the empire too, arguing that protected trade inside it coddled British industry and left it uncompetitive.)
As they comment, every British Prime Minister post-Empire has struggled with the ‘sense of thwartedness and decline’, attempted to address and reverse it, and find a ‘New Britain’ which either found a new role or proclaimed the age of decline over: step forward Madam Thatcher, Blair and Brown.
What Bagehot doesn’t make explicit is that in many respects we are now back to the mundane management of decline shorn of imperial delusion or the pretence of reversing decline. Only now the escapist ‘Fantasy Island’ rhetoric which deluded Thatcher and Blair and captured large parts of our political establishment and media is now completely discredited. That seems like a huge opening and historic moment, but it could also be a time of much difficulty, pain and messiness.