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  1. The Weekend Essay
30 September 2023

Britain’s eternal decline

Debate on Britain’s place in the world has flared through war, imperial upheaval and Thatcherism. Brexit reignited it.

By Andrew Gamble

In the Daily Telegraph in May, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, lamented the new talk about British decline, but rather bizarrely claimed that this was a conversation confined to the left. Conservatives, he declared, are always optimistic about the country’s future. He obviously does not spend much time perusing the pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail or tuning in to GB News. They are awash with dark forebodings about the decline not just of the UK but the entire West. Economic collapse, “woke” subversion of Britain’s culture and national identity, the undermining of British democracy by sinister global elites, the incompetence of government to achieve even simple goals such as stopping immigrant boats in the Channel or delivering a Brexit worth the name, all these are familiar themes.

Allister Heath, Sherelle Jacobs, Douglas Murray, Alison Pearson, Charles Moore, David Frost, Nick Timothy, and a host of others fill the pages of the Telegraph with gloom about what is happening to the country. Columns abound with titles such as “Britain isn’t in ‘managed’ decline; the country is about to fall off a cliff”, “Britain is now an elite dictatorship where majority opinions are crushed”, “Politicians have lost faith in politics; this explains the state we are in”, “There’s no cause for optimism about broken Britain”, “The horrifying truth behind the coming collapse of basketcase Britain”. Not much optimism here. And this is after 13 years of Conservative government.

What explains the return of this deep cultural and political pessimism on the right? Part of the answer is that narratives of national decline have exercised a powerful attraction for the political class since the last decades of the 19th century. Historians are divided about whether these fears had any substance. The historian Martin Wiener has called decline the most important problem of 20th century British history, but David Edgerton, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (2018), has insisted that it is a myth. But myths can create their own reality. For over a century decline has been one of the organising frameworks shaping perceptions, debates and policy choices in Britain.

My own book, Britain in Decline, was first published in 1981. I wrote it to try to make sense of the political turmoil and increasing polarisation of the 1970s. This was in sharp contrast to the 1950s and 1960s. I became fascinated by the way in which political debate was being framed particularly on the right in terms of four “declines” – in external power, in economic performance, in state capacity and in national culture. It had been widely believed since the 1960s that Britain needed to modernise, by overhauling its state, restructuring its economy, liberalising its culture and finding a new role in the world after the end of empire. The modernisation programmes of Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath were the response. But with the ending of the long postwar boom in the Western economy following the breakdown of the postwar managed currency order in 1971 and the first oil shock in 1973, the British economy was plunged into stagflation, with rapidly rising inflation, bankruptcies, unemployment and strikes. The prosperity of the last two decades evaporated and none of the tools that had created the relatively benign postwar economy seemed to work any more. Many on the right came to see the state as the problem. It was over-extended, taxing and spending too much, sucking the life out of the productive economy.

As the economic situation worsened, so politics polarised and the centrists in both Labour and the Conservatives lost ground. Radical right and radical left insurgencies scorned consensus and compromise and urged transformational change to rescue Britain from decline and end political stalemate and drift. The 1970s became a time of intellectual ferment and movement to the extremes because the crisis in British politics appeared so deep – not just a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of Britain’s ancien regime, its pre-modern state, and because of that a crisis of the culture. The analyses of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, first formulated in the New Left Review in the 1960s, seemed even more pertinent in the 1970s.

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[See also: John Le Carre and the spectre of British decline]

Britain in Decline explains the political crisis of the 1970s by placing it in the context of the peculiarities of British history and politics, the 100-year debate on decline which stretched back to the 1880s, but also analyses it comparatively, as a particular expression of the interconnections between geopolitics, state capacity, political economy and national culture which shape all states.

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What links the different phases of the decline debate is empire, how it can be sustained and whether it is possible to imagine Britain without its empire, the guarantor of its leading role in world affairs. This Question of Decline comes to the fore every time there is a significant change in geopolitics, raising questions about Britain’s place in the world, both what it is and what it should be, and whether the country’s state, economy and culture are strong and resilient enough to deliver it. Four such moments stand out. The first occurs at the beginning of the 20th century when British dominance began to look fragile with the emergence of powerful new rivals, particularly Germany and the United States. The growing realisation that Britain’s far-flung oceanic empire would struggle to match the concentrated power and resources available to the new continental empires was summed up by the Admiralty’s terse assessment that Britain could not fight rivals on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously.

That First Decline Debate was spearheaded by social imperialists such as Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner who wanted Britain shaken out of its liberal torpor, its economy re-organised and its national culture re-energised through the creation of a more powerful and active state to strengthen resistance to socialism at home and rival imperialisms abroad. They urged imperial union, a federation of Britain and its white dominions, establishing a protective tariff to enable British industries to compete with Germany and the US and generate revenue for social security and imperial defence.

The Second Decline Debate emerged in the 1930s following the end of British financial supremacy and the liberal order with the collapse of the gold standard in 1931 and the belated triumph of social imperialism. Although Britain had emerged as one of the victors of the First World War and with its empire at its greatest extent, the severe impairment of British financial strength made its position even more fragile than before. Irish secession from the empire had to be conceded, as well as naval parity with the US, while universal suffrage had made Labour a serious internal competitor for power. Debate centred on how Britain could defend its empire and avoid war with the expansionist powers, Germany and Japan.

Britain’s participation in the Second World War, as the pessimists had predicted, made Britain financially and militarily dependent on the US, and made withdrawal from empire inevitable. Starting with Indian independence in 1947, decolonisation gathered pace until by 1970 only a handful of territories were left. This began the Third Decline Debate in the 1960s. The question was what should or could replace the Empire. The modernisation strategy proposed joining the European Community to help push through reforms in economic organisation and industrial relations.

Membership of the European Community was achieved in 1973 and confirmed in a referendum in 1975. But the early years of membership were overshadowed by the economic crisis and the profound restructuring of the international economic order around floating exchange rates and globalisation imposed by the United States. In the Conservative Party a small minority held out for national sovereignty and Britain’s independence from both the United States and Europe (the old imperialist position). But the Thatcherites embraced globalisation, repudiated Keynesian economic management and a high-tax, high-spending state, and sought to break the power of organised labour. This was allied to a drive to force the British economy to be more competitive by exposing it to international competition. It presided over a profound economic shock that restructured the British economy by privatising state-owned public utilities, deregulating the financial sector and allowing many of Britain’s traditional industries to disappear. It effected a switch to a service-based economy even more focused on London and the south-east. Power was centralised in Westminster and inequality rose sharply.

By 1997 the British economy and the British state had been substantially changed. The acceptance by Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the new framework for managing the economy ended the political polarisation of the Thatcher period and with it the decline debate. As the Conservative manifesto declared so triumphantly in 1987 on the eve of Thatcher’s third consecutive election victory, “the people were not ungovernable, the disease was not incurable, the decline has been reversed”.

The outcome of the first two decline debates was to push Britain towards collectivist, interventionist, protectionist policy solutions, away from its liberal free-trade traditions which had governed policy for much of the 19th century, in an ultimately vain attempt to protect its empire abroad and win political support at home. Labour governments built on and extended this bias. Thatcher’s vision, which emerged triumphant from the Third Decline Debate in the 1970s, was an emphatic repudiation of any kind of national economic strategy. Since the collapse of the gold standard in 1931 British governments had experimented with various kinds of national strategies, involving greater state involvement in the economy and varying levels of protectionism. The most comprehensive was the war-time economy introduced after 1940, which also shaped post-war planning. Only gradually after 1945 were the controls on the UK economy lifted, but many remained and there were further outbreaks of dirigisme under Macmillan, Wilson and Heath. The Thatcher government, in its solutions for Britain’s relative economic decline, repudiated not only the interventionist policies of governments since 1945 but also the policies of the national governments in the 1930s, dominated by Conservatives who were the heirs of the Chamberlain social imperialist tradition and who gave priority to security and protection over free markets.

[See also: The world ended in 1973]

One of the cardinal beliefs of the Thatcher government was that the nation’s relative economic decline could only be arrested if there was a return to the free-market principles that had governed British policy for much of the 19th century and had remained strong until 1931. The support of the Thatcherites for Britain’s membership of the European Community was because they saw it as a means to embed free-market principles as an external framework that would prevent backsliding in the UK. It would be another tool to force British companies to become more competitive. This explains the enthusiasm of Thatcher and her ministers for those measures of European integration such as the single market which removed barriers to free trade in the European Community. Being a part of the largest free-trading bloc in the world was seen as a great advantage in promoting the changes the UK economy needed. This was a big dividing line with Labour. The alternative economic strategy developed on the Labour left in the 1970s and early 1980s was a national economy strategy which advocated withdrawal from the European Community and sought industrial regeneration behind a protectionist wall of controls on trade and finance. In the early 1980s Labour was the national sovereignty party and the Conservatives under Thatcher were the globalists.

Thatcher herself and some of her allies began moving to a much more negative view of Europe by the end of the 1980s. The Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union, became the focus for a new national sovereignty caucus within the Conservative Party which revived Enoch Powell’s argument (and Tony Benn’s) that membership of the EU entailed an unacceptable loss of sovereignty and independence which could only be remedied by Britain leaving the bloc. At first this new tendency made only modest headway because John Major, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke were in charge of the Conservative Party and New Labour had become a strongly pro-European party. Economic growth, while it did not compare with the 1950s or 1960s, was stronger than it had been for two decades, and Britain’s place in the world appeared to have EU membership as one of its pillars. The UK now had a predominantly service economy that depended on access to global markets and the removal of obstacles to free movement of people, goods and capital. Decline appeared to be a thing of the past and apart from a few contrarians largely disappeared from political concern.

But this period of relative calm and consensus has now ended, just as the earlier period of calm and consensus collapsed in the 1970s. The financial crash in 2008 and the ensuing austerity was a major cause of the change, leading to much sharper polarisation and political turmoil than before the crash. But the event which brought decline right back as a central concern of political discourse was Brexit. Many of the cheerleaders for Brexit thought they were making possible a return to Thatcherism. But what they were actually doing was burying a central pillar of Thatcherism, which had depended for its rationale on being part of a stable liberal international order that promoted multilateral free trade. The two key guarantors of that were the US and the EU. Brexit only made sense if the UK could build a truly special relationship with the US, something it had failed to do since 1945, or failing that was prepared to make the costly adjustments appropriate for a protected national economy. The redistribution of resources and level of intervention necessary to truly “level up” the regions which had been destroyed by Thatcherite policies in the 1980s could not be accomplished if the goal of Brexit Britain was to slash taxes, slash spending, deregulate, encouraging a new economic shock to rid Britain of the companies and sectors which were heavily linked to trade with Europe.

Brexit has reignited the debate on decline because a decade of austerity followed by a pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fuelled the rage among both Remainers and Leavers at the way Brexit has been handled. British government and politics appears broken, governments find it difficult to achieve very much at all, while the problems facing the country, from the health service to transport to housing to sewage disposal to education, appear insoluble. This has created a sullen, resentful anti-politics mood.

How does the decline debate today compare with the decline debate in the 1970s? Back then the geopolitical choice was framed as whether the UK should dismantle its protected national economy to embrace globalisation and exploit the freedoms offered by EU membership and by the new post-Bretton Woods US international order, or whether it should entrench its national economy still further. The former won out. Today the geopolitical choice is framed by Brexit. Should British policy aim to limit the damage caused by Brexit or should it actively re-create a protected national economy? The political economy choice in the 1970s was over whether the size and interventionist role of the state should be drastically rolled back or extended further. Today the debate is over how the state needs to be re-organised if it is to meet the challenges of the climate emergency and an ageing population. The cultural debate in the 1970s was about sexual permissiveness, social liberalism and youth culture. Whether it had gone too far or not nearly far enough. Today culture is once again central to the decline debate. National identity and British values are said to be under attack by “woke” elites who want to impose cultural change on the socially conservative majority. Restoring democracy and free speech requires the purging of existing elites, the reform of major national institutions, and the re-imposition of the values of the majority on immigration, crime and minority rights.

Brexit up-ended the consensus that had developed across the political parties that membership of the EU defined Britain’s post-imperial place in the world. Many voted Leave to show their rejection of the direction in which the country was moving. The EU had become for them the scapegoat for all the things people disliked about Britain and the way it was governed. But the disillusion with Brexit is profound, intensifying the decline debate, and handing the political initiative to Labour.

One of the differences with the 1970s is that Thatcher and her allies had a clear sense as to how to begin reversing British decline, while Leavers have never agreed on what Brexit means or how it can be delivered, despite being in government. Boris Johnson promised Brexit would deliver both “global Britain” and levelling up, never acknowledging their incompatibility. In a speech in Greenwich on 3 February 2020, shortly after Britain had formally left the EU, he grandly declared: “We have the opportunity, we have the newly recaptured powers, we know where we want to go, and that is out into the world… We are re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade.”

Trying to be a global free trader by leaving the world’s largest free trade bloc never made much sense, especially in a world increasingly divided into rival protectionist economic blocs. The logic of Brexit is much better understood by those Leavers who saw it as the opportunity to reduce immigration to very low levels, to protect British jobs from foreign competition, and to increase state spending to level up those parts of the economy which had suffered from globalisation of the economy since the 1980s. Labour has plans for developing a green growth strategy to tackle climate change and boost growth and productivity. This requires building on and making full use of the expanded state which the Conservatives will bequeath them, while building a close partnership with the EU. After all the commotion of the latest debate on decline this looks like being the new direction post-Brexit Britain will take. It is not a radical solution when many think the times require radicalism. It will be fiercely attacked by the declinists and deniers of the right. But it might just work.

[See also: The great crack-up]