At Large

Lesser Britain

Is the "Great" in Britain lost for good?

By 8.13.09

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Every so often for the last half-century or so, we have seen some American arriving, breathless and sweating, with the latest post from the old country. And his news is always the same. It is that Britain is finished. All washed up. No more to be seen on the world stage -- except, perhaps, as "the sick man of Europe." This Anglo-Jeremiah is sure to quote Dean Acheson's stunning aperçu of 1962 that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role" -- which, if it means anything, simply means that the world-historical drama is short of roles, these days, for traditional imperial powers, and that Britain wouldn't want to play it anymore even if there were such a role.

The latest such prophet of doom is Stryker McGuire in Newsweek, who was the journalist who coined the expression "Cool Britannia" in the early days of the now-unlamented Blair government. "Forget the Great in Britain," his article is headed.

Even in the decades after it lost its empire, Britain strode the world like a pocket superpower. Its economic strength and cultural heft, its nuclear-backed military might, its extraordinary relationship with America -- all these things helped this small island nation to punch well above its weight class. Now all that is changing as the bills come due on Britain's role in last year's financial meltdown, the rescue of the banks, and the ensuing recession. Suddenly, the sun that once never set on the British Empire is casting long shadows over what's left of Britain's imperial ambitions, and the country is having to rethink its role in the world -- perhaps as Little Britain, certainly as a lesser Britain.

Of course, there is no shortage of those in the British press who have fired back. Gerald Warner in the Daily Telegraph wrote that

The problem, in the end, is that McGuire has mistaken Britain's cyclical problems -- in particular, the policies and composition of this Government -- for structural flaws. Yes, we have problems, but many of them are eminently fixable. After all, this is hardly the first time our valedictory as a great nation has been delivered, only to be discredited by national resurgence. "Britain is a tragedy," claimed Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. "It has sunk to borrowing, begging, stealing until North Sea oil comes in." The Wall Street Journal concurred: "Goodbye, Great Britain: it was nice knowing you." Over-eager obituarists on the far side of the Atlantic should not be surprised if this country once again disproves their terminal diagnosis.

My own sympathies are by nature and experience more with Mr. Warner than with Mr. McGuire, but sometimes I wonder. One thing that makes me wonder is the way that the British press  covered the funeral last week of Harry Patch, "the last fighting Tommy" of the First World War, the last veteran of the trenches, who was laid to rest not with solemn and patriotic music but with the sappy anti-war "folk" ditty, "Where Have all the Flowers Gone," which was said to have been played "to show Mr. Patch's antipathy to violent conflict." For, as it happens, Harry in extreme old age had finally broken his silence about his war-time experiences, now nearly a century distant in the rear-view mirror, and pronounced that "It wasn't worth it." In fact, not only was his war not "worth it," no war was. "War," he said, taking the generic view of the thing, "isn't worth one life."

It would be unfair to expect a man of 111 to show a bit more respect to his now-dead comrades-in-arms who thought otherwise. He has earned the right to his own pacifism, even though those who supposed the victory over Germany "worth it" enough to have given up their own lives are a mute but powerful testimony to the contrary view. Yet the media were virtually unanimous in finding in the old boy an affirmation of a cultural pacifism which has obviously grown stronger since I lived in Britain 20 years ago. Perhaps having been told for 80 years by enlightened and progressive opinion that he was a pitiable victim of the war, rather than an honorable victor, the idea finally went to his head. But even if it hadn't, the enlightened and progressive would have seen in his demise a justification of their victim-mongering and their self-congratulation for being wise enough to make such a mistake "never again." In the Times of London, Roy Hattersley -- a former deputy leader of the Labour Party -- saw the large crowds who turned out to honor Mr. Patch as "a sign that we believe that the world should have grown out of the waste of war." Yeah. Should have. But in fact it never has and, pace John Horgan in a recent number of the British magazine, New Scientist, never will grow out of it. Mr. Hattersley is extravagant in his praise of the returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, both the living and the dead, and speaks of the debt we owe them, but if he thinks that war is a waste it's hard to see what he supposes that debt to be. Weren't these men, rather, mere fools for having thrown their lives away for nothing? If the sacrifice of the First World War was "pointless," as he suggests it was, what makes the sacrifice of these wars any different?

One answer is supplied by the former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, in the Daily Telegraph, who recalled meeting Mr. Patch and "the modesty and wisdom of the last authentic voice of the First World War." That war, he says, "changed the world for ever; in its crucible of catastrophes a world was lost, and the modern period was born. The way we now take extended suffrage for granted, assume a sceptical view of authority, demand individual rights: all these things derive from the suffering and sacrifice in Flanders." Ah, so then it wasn't pointless. It's point was the loss of that other world which allowed these blessings of ours, of "the modern period," to come into being. But that other world was also the world of Britain's greatness. Let's just hope that she doesn't need it anymore.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.