Playing a Pivotal Role in Brexit: British Declinism

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Ever since the Suez Crisis the British establishment and public have accepted the narrative of British ‘declinism’. For many, the advent of post-colonialism and national self-determination heralded the end of Britain as a Great Power. In 1946, reflecting on the new world order, Keynes remarked that ‘Britain was not prepared to accept peacefully and wisely the fact that her position and her resources are not what they once were’. While Whitehall erroneously believed Britain was destined to third-rate European status behind France and Germany, what a Whitehall official referred to as a ‘greater Sweden’. Popular literature and media contributed to perpetuating this myth; publications included, We British; Are we in Decline? ; The Stagnant Society, The Establishment; What’s Wrong with Britain?, Is Britain Dying?, and Suicide Nation.

Declinism was an obsession of the left, as well as the establishment. Many followed intellectual heavyweights such as E.P. Thompson in declaring Britain guilty of ‘inverted podsnappery’ and suggesting that other countries were ‘in every respect better.’ Left-wing historians deconstructed British identity and viewed political motivations through this prism, characterizing actions as the recrudescence of Churchillism. Importantly, declinism continues to haunt and influence the British left, shaping political language and foreign policy. In the recent debate about military action in Syria, the left persistently opposed airstrikes, citing intervention as an act of British chuvanism; history and Rule Britannia was the motivation.She needed to accept her diminished role in the world. In a post from Dec 2015, Opendemocracy stated:

it has to be recognised that an ‘empire of the mind’ exists across large swathes of government, military and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, international aid and cultural bodies of soft power such as the BBC and British Council.

 The writer is clearly following the left-wing narrative of declinism, an anachronistic, as well as historically inaccurate, statement. In truth, both the establishment and the left were incorrect, Britain was never in decline.

In the 1970’s, British decline was increasingly associated with economic performance and determined Britain’s entry into the European community. To any onlooker, post war Britain was successful, it had won the war, the government was working to improve the lot of society and economic growth was considerable. Britain was Europe’s leader in steel, aircraft and car production, accounting for 50 percent of the world car exports. Thereafter, the story is familiar, inflation fluctuation, labour unrest, and failed experimentation in nationalisation of key sectors; a nation on the economic slide,  ‘the sick man of Europe’. Britain was conceived as an economic basket case, as Martin J. Weiner wrote in English Cultural and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, ‘the leading problem with modern British history is the explanation of economic decline’. On the continent, France and Germany cooperated on the regulation of Ruhr coal and steel, which resulted in significant economic benefits and the creation of the EEC. Business boomed, the Marshall Plan improved continental infrastructure, urbanisation increased consumer demand, and manufacturing was a greater percentage of GDP. Integration had foreign policy benefits too. Together Western Europe could unite against Communism and avoid resurgence in German nationalism, easing a century of Franco-German enmity. From across the Channel in Britain, the EEC was the panacea to economic illness. Declinism would be reversed; Britsh power restored.

Critically, Project Fear’s prediction of economic meltdown will prick this cultural nerve. The economic fiasco of the 1970’s is seared into the country’s popular imagination, the Three-Day-Week, blackouts, and rubbish piled New York skyline high. For good or ill, Europe is associated with our ascent from economic iniquity to a self-confident nation. Britain’s economic growth from 1980 to the Great Recession was better than any other European country. Broadly speaking, we are prosperous. Many voters understand  a Brexit would  invite economic uncertainty and diminish Britain’s ability to project power internationally. David Cameron and the Establishment are of similar judgement, a Brexit would ‘negatively affect the lives of millions’ (Google News 28th Jan); an ‘EU Exit Would Result in a Global Shock’ (BBC, 27th Jan,); and ‘would be a huge gamble’ (David Cameron). To what extent British declinism will play a role in Brexit is difficult to judge. But these types of headlines and media coverage serve to heighten Risk Aversion and will open the old wound of British decline; fear of loss, fear of being unimportant, fear of decline and a return to the 1970’s. Consequently, the greatest probability is that the undecided voter (22%,YouGov) will vote Remain. From the political left, declinism orchestrates political rhetoric along familiar lines: this is the manifest marks of the ideology of Empire, a racist reaction to immigration and economic aggrandizement. After all, we are no longer the British Empire, just Britain. What are we thinking? I guess you could say sovereignty