Yes, it’s time for my annual commentary on the state of the Union (aka the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) cobbled together beginning in the 15C and teetering on the brink of dissolution.
In my post a year ago, I decried Johnson and the Conservative Party for the incredible feat of three increasingly awful Prime Ministers. The chain has now been extended to four, with Liz Truss stepping in. Even Boris had style and chutzpah and an Eton education. Truss seems to lack these and even what pathetically passed for integrity in the Johnson administration. Originally a “remainer” (i.e., anti-Brexit), she dutifully switched and, as Johnson’s Foreign Minister, has been as hard-nosed as most in the on-going effort at quasi-extrication.
Speaking of which, Brexit has proved to be a disaster, with the impact on the UK economy already running at 5% of GNP and no clear solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum, much less the bottlenecks in transport to France and a host of other bureaucratic SNAFUs. Johnson’s Brexit fudge (to pretend that he wasn’t de facto abandoning the loyal Northern Ireland Protestants who (for reasons unclear other than habit) would rather be with England than with the EU) would only work if the Brits kept quiet and let the Northern Irish continue their relatively successful economic integration with the Irish Republic. But no! Johnson (and Truss) have insisted on “principle,” baldly asserting that they would never cut off the Orangemen. So, they propose to unilaterally change the deal they signed with the EU and if the Northern Irish economy gets a further hit and Britain’s lengthy history as a champion of the rule of (international) law gets tossed too; so be it.
The broader economic impact of Brexit of being cut off from easy access to continental markets is a self-inflicted, unforced error has been compounded by COVID and the energy/food inflation which Britain now faces (much worse than ours). You might blame Putin and the little coronavirus buggies for these crises, bur Brexit weakened the country socially and economically (not to mention skewing the politics) to such a degree that the resilience that might have dealt with these externally-caused problems was already exhausted.
Underneath all this is the fact that Britain has been getting by on its history since WWII. Its long-term decline in politico-military terms has been well recognized for decades. At least their EU membership (1973-2020) helped keep the economy reasonably well-off and allowed for a graceful slide into a second-class “has-been” Euro status.
Fundamentally, the economic problem is quite pervasive and not really reparable. At the end of the day, all national economies rise and fall on their own productivity. For centuries, the British (as well as other Euros, the US, Russia, etc.) boosted their economies on the backs of the low-cost land, commodities, and labor of others (usually of a darker hue). The Brits spent a good chunk of their accumulated pile paying for WWI and WWII. Following which, being overdrawn morally as well as financially, they proceeded to dis-imperialize as well. Neo imperialism kept things going for a while, but now, fundamental economic factors such as factor convergence and the revival of the Chinese, Indian, and other Asian economies has left the Brits entirely to their own devices.
All of this is reasonably clear now, in the 21C. I recently came across, however, a rather prescient essay, written by none other than George Orwell in 1947. Orwell was plumping for a socialist integration of Europe, but in diagnosing the problem faced in the immediate post-WWII years, observed that “the European peoples, and especially the British, have long owed their high standard of life to direct or indirect exploitation of the coloured peoples.” But he noted, it was hard to see how British workers could enjoy the middle-class lifestyle to which they aspired “if we throw away the advantages we derive from colonial exploitation.” (He was vehemently anti-imperialist as well.) Whether “thrown away” or forced to divest their empire, the Brits ended up without and they’ve been scrambling ever since.
As I noted some time ago in this blog, this is the (or, at least one) meaning of globalization. Market integration mans that things will average out and the relatively luxurious lifestyle (on a global scale) of even “working class” people in the UK cannot be maintained under the pressure of this factor convergence. The same is true, broadly speaking, in the US also.
The British response has been a curious mix of trying to run away from the complications of globalization while maintaining the image/legacy of their former globe-straddling selves. The theory of Brexit was to reassert control; i.e. they wanted to be “big fish in a small pond.” But they’ve tumbled to two problems: 1) they can’t be the imperial masters anymore, even within the UK, what with Northern Ireland gravitating towards the Irish Republic and the Scots continuing to make noises about an independence referendum; and 2) their former economic advantages are evaporating even faster. The industrial revolution was kick-started with British coal and you can’t burn that in the 21C (even if the economics worked). Maritime trading empires are run from everywhere on (Greek or Liberian-registered) ships built in Korea, carrying Chinese goods and financed by global capital markets.
Beyond the strength of its cultural/linguistic inertia, England would be pretty much of a jumbo-sized Belgium (except even Belgium is in the EU). So, it doesn’t look good; although, to be fair, the Dutch have managed pretty nicely even though their global heyday was in the 17C.
We might wish Boris well, but the blond mop and fine phrase have worn out their welcome. The long-term problems are not the fault of the recent batch of Tories. Truculent Truss will have her day, but she’s got no clue how to get to 2025, much less figure out how to lead her people (or even her party) gracefully along a decline into ordinariness. Even Charles is gritting his teeth, since he is taking the crown just as it all comes crashing down. Hail Britannia! God Save the King!