Great Britain: are we still the land of hope and glory?

By DOMINIC GILONIS

I would describe myself as a patriot of this country; I feel a certain amount of loyalty to its ideals, and praise it when it lives up to those ideals. Yet looking at the state of the country in the past decade, let alone the past century, it is hard not to feel that Britain has gone awry. This is not a matter of flag waving fear-mongering – it is the immense economic decline since the end of the Second World War; fragmentation of the social fabric holding communities together; and the evaporation of faith not just in the national ideals of Britain, but in the institutions that are supposed to uphold them. The current outrage at the political establishment from both sides of politics – whether that’s the left demanding social and economic reform to mitigate the effects of this decline, or the right seeking a return to traditional values and national solidarity – has been catalysed by one key event: the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. It brought together all the sentiments that had been bubbling away, and we now live in their shadow.


The sense of national decline had gripped Britain for a long time before the present day; the bloody conclusion of the Second Boer War in 1902 ended for many the age of British global hegemony. The war had cost millions in sterling, and over twenty-thousand British lives. From there, through the First World War, and up to 1941, there existed some hope that the empire and Britain’s hegemony could be preserved. Even the outbreak of a second World War didn’t kill the slim hope. Then, the war quickly went south – France fell, Britain was cut off from the world, and her only hope lay in bringing the US into the war. Part of the deal was for the British to prove, in painful detail, just how bankrupt they were to Congress and ship the last gold reserves across the Atlantic. The fall of Singapore to the Japanese killed off the global empire as a feasible goal; the Suez crisis in 1956 would do the same for any empire at all.


To reform the country and forge a new path, the Beveridge Report was adopted and implemented a social democratic postwar framework – a national health service, nationalised heavy industry, massive welfare and benefits spending. While the economy did grow post-1945, it was half the rate of growth of continental Europe, and by the 1970s this system had become unsustainable. Strikes were frequent in vital industry, and national humiliation returned with both a devaluing of sterling and a default on an IMF loan. Riding this wave of dissatisfaction and disillusion came Margaret Thatcher, promising to return Britain to greatness through drastic economic and social reform. Thatcher’s neoliberalism saw the economy grow enormously, yet left behind huge numbers of people, both in the economy and in society generally.


The rhetoric shifted in the 1980s from Britain in decline to a Britain restored (especially emphasising the American connection), and this rhetoric has persisted today. Tony Blair capitalised on this to offer an integration of Thatcher and Beveridge – liberal economics with heavy social spending. The apparent benefits of this system have been just that however: apparent. After the financial crisis hit, Britain’s national debt as a proportion of GDP had doubled by 2012, from 41.5% to 83.4%. Poverty rates have increased over the past several years, and are likely to continue to do so as funding for social services continues to dry up. Indeed, the main problem that Britain continues to have is a commitment to social welfare without consideration for the funding of sustainability of such projects. This is not a case of Malthusian dispassion; social welfare has to be sustainable if it is to benefit people in the future, otherwise it is a system entirely for the present.


Such sentiments can be matched with current government policies in Covid. It would be great if the government could preserve the economy for the foreseeable future, yet already 1 million jobs have been lost, with more to come without as generous a furlough scheme. The rhetoric remains however; this is ‘Great Britain’, and we should be able to afford such schemes. The fact is if we cannot come to terms with our diminished status in the world, and the very real and painful problems that plague our economy and institutions, we will continue (as Peter Cook said in the 1960s) sinking, giggling into the sea. Open and frank discussions of this are needed, where all views are considered, and where the establishment finally accepts that Britain might not be so great anymore.


Image: Arthur Osipyan on Unsplash.