The decline of Great Britain

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, flanked by her husband, Denis, addresses the press on Nov. 28, 1990, for the last time in front of 10 Downing Street in London prior to handing in her resignation as prime minister to Queen Elizabeth II.

Sean Dempsey / Getty Images

For Anglophiles such as myself, one of the saddest tales of the 20th and 21st centuries is the steady decline of Great Britain on the world stage. It all started a century ago and has been going on inexorably ever since.

Britain entered the First World War as a truly great power. Its industries were robust and sold to markets around the globe. Its army steadily grew and it contributed millions of men to the fight against Imperial Germany and its allies. Most important of all, however, was the fact that it was the centre of an empire, an empire more vast than any other seen in human history. Countries ranging from Canada to India to Australia all appeared on the map in British imperial pink. So, too, did dozens of smaller countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. This empire provided Britain with great wealth and influence. A victorious Britain was able to embark on the peace negotiations at Versailles as a doer and shaker. It was primarily responsible for remaking the maps of the Middle East and Africa, and it played a leading role in reshaping the map of Europe. Alongside the United States and France, it had the world at its feet.

But the First World War took a heavy toll on Britain. Hundreds of thousands of its young men had died in the trenches, depriving the country of the human resources it needed to recover economically. The war had also bled the country dry financially, obliging it to go around as a perpetual beggar in its relations with the United States and other wealthy countries. The war also gave rise to contestations of British rule in countries such as India and Iraq. The underfunded and badly overstretched British forces found it increasingly difficult to maintain control of some colonies. And then, of course, Britain, like most of the western world, was hit hard by the Great Depression of 1929-30. The number of the unemployed grew steadily, and social unrest was the order of the day. A once very solid country appeared to be on its uppers.

The 1930s also saw the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. By the end of the decade, Nazi Germany was posing an existential threat to Britain after it had decisively defeated France in 1940. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, Britain stood firm. The heroic efforts of the Royal Air Force were enough to stave off the threat of a German invasion. And the British people stood tall in the face of adversity. (This epoch is widely saluted by nationalists as a time when Britain “stood alone” in resisting the forces of fascism. This is a mischaracterization of events. Britain was not alone but enjoyed the wholehearted support of two of the largest and richest countries on earth — Canada and Australia — which provided it with money, material and manpower on a very generous scale.) As the war progressed, however, leadership of the Allied effort passed from Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. By war’s end, Britain was a junior partner in the troika of victorious powers.

As peace returned, Britain was faced with serious challenges. Its financial situation was very bad and it had to negotiate long-term loans with countries such as the United States and Canada. (The loan from Canada was only fully repaid in the 1990s.) In the empire, the fires of contestation were raging and Britain could no longer afford to deploy the security forces necessary to contain them. It hastily shed its responsibilities for Palestine and India, leaving chaos in its wake. Britain began to turn inward, concentrating its efforts and resources on the creation of a welfare state at home. Its last attempt to reassert its claims to empire was a disaster in the form of the Suez crisis of 1956. Under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, it was forced into a humiliating withdrawal of its forces from Egypt, leaving the Suez Canal under the control of the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. If anything finally sealed the fate of Britain’s claim to being a great power, the Suez crisis was it.

The 1960s were not particularly kind to Britain. It enjoyed a respectable position in the western alliance of nations confronting the Soviet Union, but it was as a very junior partner to the United States. Among other things, it became totally dependent on the United States for the supply of strategic military equipment, as opposed to France, which produced its own. The decade also marked the end of the empire as one country after another achieved independence in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. All that was left were some of the troubling residues of empires such as Southern Rhodesia. There, Britain’s failure to stamp out the effects of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence promulgated by the white minority government brought Britain condemnation from a host of Third World countries. (It eventually took Britain 13 years to finally sort out this situation.)

The decade of the 1970s was a mix of good and bad for Britain. The decision of the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath to join the European Economic Community was certainly the right one. It gave the country easier access to one of the richest consumer markets in the world but at the same time spelled the end of the system of Commonwealth preferences, which had been the backbone of its relations with its former colonies. It also marked a formal recognition of Britain’s status as a European power and no longer as a world power. As the decade progressed, Britain was confronted with yet another economic and financial crisis that forced it to go begging once again to the international community. And the country was faced with serious unrest domestically as strikes multiplied. The situation in public services became so dire that some observers speculated that the country might be ripe for a military takeover. The situation only began to turn around with the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979.

Thatcher’s early years were crowned with success — victory over the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, and over the Argentine junta in the Falklands. London emerged as the world’s premier financial centre, and the prime minister was able to restore stability to the country’s budgets through a severe program of cuts to expenditures. There was, however, a price to pay for this. By the end of Thatcher’s term in office, the country’s major infrastructures were in sad shape. Schools, hospitals and universities all suffered for lack of adequate investments. So, too, did the country’s road and rail networks. Britain was in many ways a weakened nation, despite all of the hype about her role in helping Ronald Reagan bring an end to the Cold War. In what can only be described as an internal party coup, she was forced out of office in 1990 in the midst of growing dissatisfaction with her leadership and her government.

The post-Thatcher years were relatively uneventful in terms of Britain’s place in the world. It settled into the role of being a loyal European ally of the United States. That, however, was to prove to be a catastrophe when Prime Minister Tony Blair, alone among major European leaders, decided to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Britain was isolated in the western community of nations, and the shadow of Iraq hung over Blair for the rest of his term in office.

The final blows signalling Britain’s decline occurred in the past five years. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to try to appease the Euro-skeptics in his Conservative party by calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union has proved to have been disastrous. The 2016 referendum produced a very slim majority in favour of leaving the EU. What came to be known as Brexit has been a curse on British politics ever since. It led to the downfall of Prime Minister Theresa May and to the election of the populist Boris Johnson. By insisting that Britain should leave the EU even without an agreement to guarantee its future access to the EU market, Johnson has condemned his country to economic hardship and to isolation in Europe.

Britain’s Brexit problems have been compounded of late by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been widely criticized both at home and abroad as being haphazard. The country has gone from total lockdown to premature reopening and back to total lockdown. Britain has one of the highest rates of infection among European countries. The measures taken to combat the spread of the disease have had a devastating effect on the national economy. The GDP is expected to shrink by 11.3 per cent this year. As the Globe and Mail commented in a recent article: “That’s the biggest contraction since 1709, when a fierce winter across much of Europe devastated the economy and caused widespread famine.” And the government’s budgetary deficit is expected to rise to 394 billion pounds, the highest level since 1945. In short, both Brexit and the pandemic have left Britain in dire straits.

Great Britain still has real strengths. Its great universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, are still ranked among the best in the world. The British Broadcasting Corporation remains the gold standard among public broadcasters. And the men and women of the British diplomatic service continue to be an enormous asset. But these strengths are not enough to counter the heavy toll that events and history have taken on Britain’s status among nations. Even the much-vaunted “special relationship” between the United States and Britain (more often referenced in London than in Washington) will continue to fray at the edges as post-Brexit Britain no longer serves the United States as a point of entry into the EU. Germany and France will assume greater importance for the U.S. in the years ahead. Britain will carry on as a frequently dysfunctional and increasingly isolated nation on the margins of Europe and no more. Sic transit gloria mundi. Pity.

Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.

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