“Britain,” Dean Acheson famously said in 1962, “has lost an Empire and not yet found a role.” More than forty years later, it is still looking.
The latest lurch in Britain’s effort to find its place in the world has taken the shape of a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. With public opinion evenly balanced (44 percent for Leave and 44 percent for Remain in the June 19 FT “poll of polls,” anything could happen. British politics are usually pretty phlegmatic by European standards; the UK hasn’t had a revolution since the nearly bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688. Given the profound sense of caution and moderation behind that long tradition, it’s possible that undecided voters will break for Remain, but as of this writing nobody really knows what the British will do.
Brexit proponents among the divided Tories say this will be the salutary shock Britain needs, that launching out into the stormy seas on its own will invigorate Britain. Post-Thatcher Britain, freed from the stranglehold of EU regulations and forced to trim costs by the pressures of global competition, will emerge as a liberal, world class economy.
Perhaps, but there are other, less forward-looking elements among the Leave voters. Many of them hope that, once out of the EU, the UK will be less liberal: protectionist and anti-immigrant. Is Britain really withdrawing from Europe in order to embrace the wider world? Or is Brexit being driven in large part by a desire to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length?
Americans, even those of us who think the EU has become much too centralized, bureaucratic, and ambitious for its own good, tend to favor a Remain vote. An EU without the UK would probably be less pro-American and more dirigiste than the bloc currently is. Moreover, we worry that if the UK leaves the EU, Scotland would leave both the UK and NATO. The US would lose important submarine facilities and access to strategic sea routes. A smaller Britain is more likely to cut the defense budget than to increase it; one of America’s most important allies would suddenly be smaller, poorer and diplomatically isolated.
What worries Americans most about Britain, however, isn’t the result of this week’s referendum, whatever that may be, but the long term decline that has taken the Great out of Great Britain. What worries us isn’t that Britain lost its Empire; that was inevitable given the rise of third world nationalism and the shocks of World War II. It’s the postwar failures that matter most.
Britain’s economic performance—and policy skills—were in decline after World War I, but the bottom really fell out when the Attlee government nationalized large chunks of the economy after World War II. Germany, France and the Netherlands had all been much harder hit by the war than Britain, but all these countries raced ahead with miraculous postwar recoveries in the 1950s. Britain, once the world’s economic leader, poked along in the slow lane, comparatively speaking, hobbled by socialist illusions that Labour loved and the Tories accepted.
Britain didn’t dash triumphantly into what became the EU; it limped miserably in after declining economic performance and poor policy turned it into one of Europe’s under-performers.
Economic policy isn’t the only skill the British misplaced during the 20th century. British diplomacy, once the dread and envy of them all, no longer has the flash and the force that once made Perfidious Albion a byword for clever subtlety and ruthless drive. When Britain led the coalition against Louis XIV back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, British diplomacy, British financial acuity, and British military genius enabled it to frustrate the ambitions of a France that had three times its population and twice its GDP. Today, Britain is routinely flummoxed by intra-EU diplomacy; Marlborough, Pitt, and Disraeli would have had the Europeans eating out of their hands.
Occasionally, the gray and foggy establishment groupthink that dominates British life drives the country to the edge of ruin. At that point, as in 1940 when the Tories turned to the much loathed figure of Winston Churchill, or again in 1979 when they turned to Margaret Thatcher, unconventional thinking breaks through. But such figures are generally hated by the establishment and dispensed with as quickly as possible in the interest of returning to the more familiar pattern of mediocrity, grumbling, hard drinking, and drain-circling that seems to suit Britain’s civil service, academic, and political establishments better than anything else.
The sad reality is that Britain in its current frame of mind is headed for more decline whether it stays in or leaves the EU. Britain’s biggest problems have little to do with anything coming from Brussels. Its most problematic migrants are from Pakistan, not Poland. The social and cultural decay of its white working class and its persistent failure to raise the productivity of its factories and schools are entirely homemade. And while Britons complain, accurately enough, that Britain hasn’t been able to get all the changes it wants from Brussels, that has much more to do with the failures of British diplomatic strategy than with any monolithic opposition on the Continent. Europe has never been as divided as it is today; there have never been so many opportunities for clever and creative diplomacy to create coalitions to push through new ideas. And one thing the Leave campaign needs to consider: If British diplomacy hasn’t been able to get a good enough deal operating inside the EU, why should anyone think it will fare any better after voting to leave? Far more likely is the unhappy scenario that a political class that failed to secure the country’s interests inside Europe will continue to flounder once Britain leaves.
Meanwhile, the one success of British economic policy, allowing the City of London to build a global tax avoidance and kleptocracy enabling business, is coming under increasing threat. The world is running out of patience with Britain and its chain of money laundering outposts, and whether the UK leaves the EU or stays in, the City can no longer operate under the Skull and Crossbones. No doubt some in the City will try to take advantage of Brexit to roll out the welcome mat for Russian and Chinese kleptocrats, South American drug cartels, arms dealers, tax evaders, African despots, and every other shady character, but a diplomatically isolated Britain will soon find that the US will join with the EU to bring the City under stronger international control. Brexit or no Brexit, the City needs a new strategy.
There’s nothing inevitable about British failure and decline, either inside the EU or outside it. British society and British culture retain significant elements of the dynamism and inventiveness that once made Britain the world’s most amazing country. If anything, immigration has revitalized Britain by bringing in new blood, stirring things up, and making people think.
The healthiest element in the Brexit campaign is its iconoclasm. Despite their antics, politicians like Boris Johnson instinctively feel that Britain’s only way forward is to somehow break the dead grip of Respectable Opinion on British political life. Possibly, but to an American observer the focus on Brexit seems like a distraction rather than a solution. If the old dynamism and verve can somehow be restored to the political and economic climate, Britain will do well in or out of the EU. If the stale failure of bureaucratic mediocrity holds sway, Britain will probably decline—slowly inside the EU, and more rapidly if it leaves.
For Americans, the example of Britain is always there as a warning: a dynamic, world changing culture, a leader in technology and an economically dominant power can in fact decline and decline and decline. Voters can choose mediocrity; elites can lose the vision that once made a people great; the fire can die away until only a few embers glow in the ashes. Those of us who think about these things can’t help but note that Britain (like Europe in general) tended to lose its fire and spirit as it lost its faith in God.
Whatever happens in the referendum, Americans should hope that on the day after, our British allies should begin to think long and hard about what went wrong, not on the continent of Europe, but inside Britain itself—and then start to fix it. If that happens, Britain will emerge once again as a world leader—not a great empire, but a great shaper of human ideals, a world-shaking innovator, and an inspiring cultural power. That will be good for us all; inside or outside of the EU, the world still needs Britain to be great.