Devil's Kitchen Comment

The less sweary writings of The Devil's Kitchen

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Wither Great Britain?

Over the last year or so that I have been blogging, I have read a vast variety of opinions about the state of Britain and its place in the modern world. I have read the views of economists and politicos from across the spectrum and I would like to distill all of this knowledge into – and I apologise for the term that I am about to use – my vision for the future of Britain.

The current outlook

The people of Britain are a little bit confused. Many commentators remark upon the arrogance of the British people, which they blame on the fact that the people have not realised that Britain is no longer the world-striding colossus that she once was in the days of Empire.

“The thing is, this ‘thirty years of hurt’/cheating-foreigners-robbed-us/we-didn’t-actually-lose psychosis is merely a minor symptom of a deeper malaise: the failure to accept that we, as a country, no longer stride the world stage like the mighty planet-fucking colossus we were in our days of empire.

It’s this insecurity that leads people like Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to use phrases like ‘punch above our weight’ when talking of our role in world affairs.” Justin McKeating, "ChickenYoghurt"1

Our place in the world

Britain is one of the tiniest countries in the world and one of the more isolated, in relative terms; sure, that has been a boon in many ways, both in repelling unwanted invasions and in leading to the necessary construction of what was once the largest and most powerful Navy in the world.

And yet we have one of the largest, most stable and most profitable economies in the world, and we do influence world affairs to a far greater extent than is warranted for a little island at the tip of north west Europe; much of this influence is conferred upon us by virtue of our alliance with the world's only remaining superpower (it certainly isn't because of our role as the EU's whipping-boy) but also because it really wasn't so long ago that we ruled a significant proportion of the globe.

Despite what many commentators will try to tell you, we are not universally hated around the world for it: remember those ecstatic parades, the signs saying "the British are here to save us" in Sierra Leone, when we finally decided that we had a responsibility to help our old protectorate? Remember when 90% of the population of Gibraltar voted to remain British, when the Labour government was negotiating with the Spanish to return the rock? And I remember talking to one of the staff at school who was born on the Falklands: she recounted the euphoria when the Falklanders realised that the British were not, as expected, going to leave them to the tender mercies of the Argentinian junta.

Many foreigners still have a concept of Britain that is very much at odds with what the media would have us believe; for sure, many of them are disappointed with the reality, but they believe that the British stand for honour, fair play, politeness, tea and cricket.

Reasons for the malaise

Part of the problem is that Britain, as a nation, has lost its way. A skewed view of our Imperial past - predicated mainly, but far from exclusively, by those on what might roughly be designated “the Left” - has emphasised the guilt that we should feel about the more unsavoury bits of our occupations has all but eclipsed the pride that we should feel about the benefits that we brought to many of our territories (it is interesting to note that the world's largest commercial or utility employer in the world is the Indian Railway2, which was built by the British).

The emphasis on the guilt for our colonial past has led to an almost irrational desire never to act unilaterally; we seek always to be seen to be supporting the actions of another power, whether that is the United Nations (UN), the United States of America (USA) or the European Union (EU).

In the end, this has been damaging to the British psyche: where once we were the masters of the world, now we are seen merely as servants of the interests of other world powers - interests which are often of no or little benefit to ourselves, e.g. The Iraq War.

Things not to do

Many seemed to be surprised when the lion's share of the Iraq rebuilding contracts went to US companies whereas, in fact, anyone could have seen that it was only natural: the US was acting entirely in its own interests, as one would expect it to do. If we are merely to be the obedient dog of the US, then we should not be surprised that we are only thrown the scraps from the feast-table. So, clearly, although it is advantageous to be generally supportive of the USA, we should not expect materially to benefit from doing so slavishly.

Equally, Britain does not benefit from her membership of the EU, which is a protectionist, isolationist entity: a federation of countries who – to a large extent – have turned their backs on the events of the rest of the world. The complicated system of quotas and tariffs impose severe trade penalties on those outside the federation, and artificially inflate the price of goods to those inside: in this way, the EU impoverishes both its own citizens and those with whom it trades.

An opportunity

Britain's empire and consequent influence was built on trade, for it was the private British East India Company3 that first started to exploit the riches to be found in the Indian subcontinent. Although the company was dissolved, in 1874, and its assets appropriated by the Crown, the company had already enabled Britain to become one of the most important and influencial trading hubs in the world.

I believe that the opportunity to become so is present once more. Whilst the ability to trade all over the world has become far easier than once it was, the various power blocks have become more protectionist, attempting – usually unsuccessfully – to shelter their indigenous industries from what they see as the predations of developing countries. Countries reliant on heavy industry, Germany for instance, have seen their economies stagnate whilst we in Britain have an advantage. For, whatever your personal opinion of her, Margaret Thatcher realised that there was little point in attempting to protect British industry from cheaper worldwide competitors. Painful though it was for those in those industries, and as unpopular as it made her, Thatcher withdrew state support and Britain's heavy industrial companies withered away.

Whilst other countries still cling to their old ways, we in Britain have already gone through the pain of conversion to a services-based industry and are thus ready to engage with the rest of the world on a level that is almost unknown, at least amongst our EU partners.

The next step

The first thing that we must do is to extricate ourselves from the EU. At present, our membership of this organisation costs us a net £6.5 billion (and will shortly cost us even more) and this money could be better used within this country.

So, firstly we should withdraw from the EU and become merely a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA)4, such as Iceland, or – better still – withdraw completely and use our market purchasing power to leverage a favourable deal from the EU. This will return total financial and political autonomy to the British government.

We should then open immediate dialogues with the Commonwealth and developing countries, with the aim of negotiating special trade deals, the core of which should be totally free trade. We will not impose penalties on goods entering Britain, whilst we shall be able to access growing markets all around the world. As more and more of our economy becomes based on the exchange of information and technology, so it will become easier to sell those skills into these developing markets.

The economic benefits

With a reliable trading partner and, through us, access to markets over the entire globe, the economies of the developing world should become more stable and, more importantly, sustainable. It is to be hoped – and I would say that it is inevitable – that whilst the economy stabilises then so will the political systems. As I wrote in my comment on the Middle East5, in most cases the development of both tend to go hand-in-hand. In this way, we will be helping to ease the misery of those whose woes we consistently fail to cure merely by the short-term solution of patronising charity.

Thus, our practical attempts to enrich ourselves can also be put into a moral context, and one which may confound those for whom the pursuit of wealth is automatically commensurate with the destructive exploitation of people. By indulging in free trade, we will eventually enrich both ourselves and those unfortunates who are staple items on our news services.

The social benefits

I believe that this great work would allow the people of Britain to regain that sense of purpose which has so deserted these isles over the last century or so. It would, if you like, tap into the “Blitz Spirit” and help to bind our peoples together. Involvement in what I term The Great Project would allow people once again to feel pride, rather than the ersatz, racist jingoism which is all that the resurgent BNP offer, in this country. For economic incentives, whilst undoubtedly effective (especially when present as disincentives), are not the only thing that people need to provide a motive to act: they need – if you like – a spiritual motivation, to feel that they are doing well by doing good, as Tom Lehrer once put it6.

For, as a famous religious figure once said, man cannot live on bread alone.

  1. Justin McKeating, a.k.a. ChickenYonghurt, England vs delusions of grandeur: what’s the beef?,

  2. Wikipedia, The Indian Railways,

  3. Wikipedia, The British East India Company,

  4. Wikipedia, EFTA,

  5. Wanabehuman, The Culture, Star Trek and the Middle East, and also on this blog,

  6. Tom Lehrer, The Old Dope Peddler,

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared, in a more vituperative form, at The Devil's Kitchen.


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