Robert Tombs is the author of This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, which appears in an updated paperback edition on 28 July. He is a fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy.
Throughout the United Kingdom’s existence, its rulers – and many foreign friends and enemies – have been convinced it was on a downward spiral.
The ‘memorable era of England’s glory is past’, thought William Pitt in the 1780s, and the Emperor of Austria agreed: Britain had ‘fallen utterly and forever, all influence and force lost … a second class power.’
We were ‘a weary Titan’, lamented Jospeh Chamberlain in 1902. Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State declared in 1962 that Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role.’
This litany of pessimism (and there is much more in the same vein) is always at least in the background, and indeed it often dominates discussion.
It reflects the glaring imbalance between our size and our global role. The world communicates in our language, copies swathes of our culture, uses many of our political and legal principles, and has followed our path of economic development.
Such disproportionate power and influence have often seemed precarious and fragile, even fraudulent. So it is easy to feel that we have declined from some unspecified Golden Age.
Declinism reached new depths in the postwar period. What caused it? Militarily, we were certainly overtaken by the USA. But then so was every other Great Power. The end of empire was a severe blow to the prestige of the political and diplomatic establishment. Yet the empire had brought limited economic advantage and was a huge drain on resources.
The economy was portrayed as falling behind Europe, but this was only because Italy, France and Germany were experiencing a one-off boom. Ironically, this came to an end just as we joined the EEC, and we have outperformed the Eurozone since its creation.
The declinist mindset is damaging. It persuaded governments in the 1960s and 70s to beg to join the European Common Market. The EEC was ‘the lifeboat’ and Britain ‘the sinking Titanic’, as one of Edward Heath’s close advisors put it. So however disadvantageous the terms, we should ‘swallow the lot,’ decided the chief British negotiator.
This same mindset underlay Remainer sentiment, and affected the politicians and officials who swallowed the EU’s ‘divorce settlement’, treating Brexit as a damage limitation exercise rather than a national opportunity.
Britain, to them, is a weak and failing country, that can only survive in the EU lifeboat or clinging to its gunwales – however many leaks the lifeboat keeps springing.
If we look at our history dispassionately, it is not a story of decline, but one of remarkable continuity over three centuries: as the smallest of the half-dozen or so most powerful states, but arguably the most enterprising and influential.
If one drew up a ‘league table’ over the last three hundred years, it might suggest that we have recently risen.
Never before in our peacetime history have we been Western Europe’s leading military power (our army in the 1930s was much smaller than that of Czechoslovakia, for example). Never before have we extended security guarantees as far east as Finland – Palmerston would have had a fit!
Brexit was a victory – even though a narrow one – over declinism and ‘Project Fear’. Most voters refused to accept that their country was incapable of successful self-government, and they have stuck to that opinion. Forceful aid to Ukraine has shown what is possible.
Our global role has been assessed by Professor Brendan Simms, the Cambridge international relations specialist, as ‘probably in third place after the United States and China, and certainly among the top four or five actors in the global system.’ We need governments that will act accordingly.