The madness of British elite’s pessimism
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams once said: “There is almost no situation on Earth which cannot be explained with the hermeneutical tool of Winnie the Pooh.” Its genius is the whole array of human emotion and personality displayed in its characters. My favorite is poor, depressive, pessimistic Eeyore.
In the 2018 Disney film “Christopher Robin,” we first come across Eeyore floating in a stream. When asked what he’s doing, he replies in a disinterested monotone: “I’m lying on my back, floating down a stream. Somebody pushed me in. I’m probably going to die.”
Sadly, that sentiment is shared by large parts of the British elite, and has been to a greater or lesser extent since the 1960s.
In the first year of that decade, then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a speech in Cape Town during a tour of Britain’s African colonies and dominions. Macmillan was not a defeatist, but a realist. “The wind of change”, he proclaimed, “is blowing through this continent.”
This speech — more perhaps than the independence of India and Pakistan — marked the conscious beginning of the end of the British Empire. The UK could not sustain its empire any longer and, even if it could, nationalist consciousness was reaching levels that meant the empire could only have been sustained through oppression and bloodshed. The days of the great European empires were over. But, over the following decades, the loss of empire contributed to a sense of national lethargy within British politics: A feeling of the inevitability of decline. That feeling is still alive and well today, and has been crystallized by Brexit.
There is no other nation whose leaders can get away with talking the country down for a period of half a century
Former Cabinet minister William Waldegrave last week went on a British evening news program to talk about Brexit and promote his new book. His view was that it is time for the UK to come to terms with the fact that it is just a middle-sized, middle-ranked country, and get on with its mediocre existence. He suggested the UK should give up its seat on the UN Security Council. This former minister didn’t seem to care whether Britain stayed in the EU or not, but said it in the manner of someone who doesn’t care whether they are executed by firing squad or hanging. What did it matter, given the result was going to be the same either way?
Such a view is common among large parts of Britain’s governing classes. There is often (usually on the left and particularly currently in the Labour Party’s leadership) a bass melody that Britain’s decline is well deserved due to its past sins — that, as we can’t do any good in the world, we might as well stop trying. Some Remainers believe we are simply a minnow: Apart from the European shoal, we will be easy prey for sharks.
The flip side of this perspective is nostalgia for empire: An inability to see realistically and a desire to relive the glory days of when Britain (and her empire) stood alone against Europe (and bankrupted herself in the process). This is daft but, with a few prominent exceptions, is not a widely held view. That doesn’t mean that the pessimists should have it all their own way. If the nostalgists look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, the eyewear of the pessimists is tinted with effluent. There is a middle ground.
Let’s start with the UK’s international opportunities to make change for the better, such as her seat on the UN Security Council or membership of the G7 (and all the other Gs). There is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a tale of national decline that calls for a country to give up the key tools of her international power.
Or what about the UK’s economy: The seventh largest in the world (“despite Brexit,” as they say). The UK is the sixth highest-spending military power in the world, despite consistent efforts by successive governments to diminish the power of her armed forces. On softer measures, the UK boasts 18 of the world’s top 100 universities — more than any country other than the US, and more than the rest of Europe combined. Or British overseas aid — ranked fourth in the world behind China, the US and Germany.
The point of this is not to boast about how great the UK is, but rather to point out the madness of elite pessimism. There is no other nation whose leaders can get away with talking the country down for a period of half a century. In many ways, the UK is underachieving, not overachieving — and part of the reason is precisely this malaise. So long as those governing the UK have an innate suspicion of the merits or capacity of British global influence, then they will not use it effectively.
On purely economic terms, the decision to leave the EU was madness: Who de-liberalizes their economy and leaves the nearest large free-trade bloc? However, the EU was never a purely economic project, but a political one; and a political one that initially refused to allow the UK to join, precisely because Britain’s outlook was global, not local. It is a political project, some of whose elites celebrate Brexit because it frees them to pursue what they were not able to with the UK still a member.
We shouldn’t be unrealistic about Britain’s global influence; there are limitations. Its economy has some severe structural impediments, but these are impediments that are within the power of British governments to overcome. It is time for the British elite to get out of their Eeyore-like funk and start to think about Britain’s assets. It is time to think strategically on where the UK can lead, not where it must follow.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby