Whoever wins the next election will lead a smaller, weaker country. David Cameron may be well suited to speak for such a nationby David Goodhart / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
The artist Tracey Emin is no political sage. But she seemed to strike a chord recently when complaining about British tax levels, the high costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the burden of hosting the London Olympics. Does she speak for a new Little Britain?
You didn’t hear this during the party conference season, but whoever wins the next election will lead a smaller and weaker country. And one of the unsung tasks of the next government will be to manage a renewed decline in Britain’s global status.
For the three decades after 1945, the British story—at least viewed from abroad—was one of relative decline. In the 1980s Thatcherism restored national prestige and economic confidence, which by and large continued under New Labour. Tony Blair’s five wars signified, for good and ill, an activist outward-looking country that more than justified its seat at the top table.
But the period which began with the Falklands war of 1982 and ended with the Iraq war, or possibly Lehman’s fall (Britain could arguably have prevented both) may soon look like a blip. In a hard power reckoning of Britain’s financial clout, as well as its ability and will to project military force, decline is set to resume. Even when something like normal economic service resumes, Britain’s most important business sector—finance—is likely to be permanently smaller and less profitable. And because of the severity of the crisis, our fiscal position will remain weak for a decade or two. Meanwhile, North sea oil is running out, hence those embarrassing deals with the Libyan colonel.
All this means that Britain cannot afford its current international commitments. Trident will be patched up rather than replaced and fresh engagements on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan—which together have cost the British military almost £20bn since 2003—are inconceivable. As Lewis Page argues on p20, we will have to choose between armed forces able to intervene anywhere in the world and an unaffordable arms industry. Either way we will be less useful to the US as a junior world policeman. We may hold on to our seats at various top tables—the UN security council, the IMF and so on—but at the G20 and the other new global forums our voice will not be a loud one.
Britain’s relative weakening in the postwar decades was experienced by many people as a loss. But the next phase…