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 of decline may be more welcome, as Tracey Emin suggests. Given the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the confusion about Afghanistan, a withdrawal from current engagements would, in the short term, be applauded. Perhaps reflecting that mood, this year’s party conferences were even more parochial than usual.
In the future we may regret the withdrawal from global engagement. The liberal intelligentsia, which has been particularly hostile to recent international action, will complain bitterly when we are incapable of intervening to right wrongs or to lead the global argument on climate change or development aid.
But in the short term the decline will be disguised by two factors. First, Britain’s renewed decline will be nothing compared to the shift in power from the whole of the west to the east. Second, British soft power—from the English language to pop music and the Premier League—is unlikely to be affected by the ebbing of hard power. Nonetheless, soft power is no substitute for the real authority exercised by Gordon Brown in the global crisis, something that may soon be impossible to imagine happening again.
If this is true we are going to need a new, more modest story about Britain in the world. Labour’s attempt at reinventing Britishness has not really worked. Can the Tories do better? Despite their old association with a “Great” Britain, they led the final retreat from empire in the 1950s and David Cameron seems, by temperament and experience, well suited to speak for a smaller, quieter land. His liberal Toryism is often compared with Harold Macmillan’s, but Supermac’s first world war experience made him an internationalist. Cameron’s most scarring experience has been fathering a severely disabled child, which has made him an admirer of the NHS. Moreover, he’s made no effort to create an international profile—in contrast to Tony Blair in 1997, who was well connected both in Clinton’s America and in Europe.
Cameron’s problem is that the only plausible geopolitical “frame” for this more modest country is Europe. You don’t have to like the clunky, unromantic thing called the EU to accept that it is the last big stage on which we can play a central leadership role. Britain will soon no longer have the choice between being a global player (albeit minor) and a big European player. If a future Tory government cannot have the first option and rejects the second, Britain will in effect have no global strategy. Yet for most Tories—perhaps for most British people—no strategy is better than a European one, and who better to articulate this retreat from the world than a homely, domesticated representative of the old governing class?