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In this month's Prospect: in search of Great Britain

A look at our latest issue
May 20, 2015

The next five years will determine Britain’s place in the world for many years after that. As Adam Posen says, if the country contrives to fall out of the European Union and to relinquish Scotland, it will be a distinctly less interesting ally for the United States. And as Anatole Kaletsky writes, the chance of either currently makes the UK “Europe’s most unpredictable country.” The danger of the twin battles of this parliament is that victory goes to those who appear to care most, and the Brexit brigade and the Scottish secessionists have a headstart in the profession of public passion.

It is curious, as Bill Emmott says, that a country enjoying the most rapid recovery from recession in the developed world is so short of confidence. Looking back, it’s clear that failure in Afghanistan and Iraq hit British confidence in its ability to influence the world much harder than it did American, even though both military campaigns were led from Washington and the worst mistakes conceived there. Much the same goes for the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis for the UK; the bitterness of political divisions over the coalition’s austerity programme has been a real cost to the national sense of cohesion, which Christine Lagarde’s tributes to the quarterly economic growth figures do not salve. It was almost palpable during the last parliament how the national sense of what Britain could do abroad withered and shrank—and the sense of what it should even try to do, along with it.

David Cameron’s task is to turn that around. One answer is to offer Scotland and Brussels deals likely to keep the UK united and a member of the EU; he needs to do so with a generosity and sense of ambition that does not just reckon to secure assent, but to extend Britain’s influence in the world. But it also lies in the chance for change at home. As Vernon Bogdanor writes, as part of Prospect’s continuing campaign for a new Blueprint for Britain, the UK needs to hold a convention urgently to redraw the constitution into one more appropriate for a modern, fast-growing and complex society of many regions. Kishwer Falkner agrees that the Human Rights Act needs examination as part of that. And as Philip Collins writes, we could do with returning to first principles on how a government should tax its citizens.

Countries often arrive at a point when forces under way for generations suddenly compel government and politics to change. In the US, the growth of the Hispanic population may put Marco Rubio in the White House, even if America’s old scars of race are still all too evident. In China, President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian reflexes, as he struggles to control the rising middle class, lead Willy Lam to compare him to Mao. One of Britain’s immense strengths is its capacity for change and, indeed, willingness to invite more of it. A Conservative government now has the task of steering the country through a re-examination of who the British people are, how they want to be governed and what they want to do in the world. Even if the answer to the twin battles of the EU and Scotland is the status quo, the next five years will be anything but conservative.