Friday, December 11, 2009

Britain's Post-Imperial Malaise

The Economist on the domestic legacy of British Imperialism:

When Britons remember their dead empire, they tend to concentrate, with pride or shame, on its impact on the former colonies. The consequences for their own country are mostly thought of as so much pompous bric-a-brac and nostalgic trivia: honours and baubles with imperial names, archaic ceremonies, statues of forgotten heroes, a smattering of exotic vocabulary, curry and distressingly proficient rival cricket teams. This way of thinking about empire is mistaken. In important ways Britain is still--even, perhaps, increasingly--trapped by its imperial past.

The question that hovers above the Iraq inquiry is--since the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s weaponry was so flaky and the post-war planning so atrocious--why on earth Tony Blair did it. One theory, albeit not the one likely to be offered by Mr Blair himself, is that his militarism and messianism, the mix of responsibility and entitlement that he evinced, are part of the inheritance of all post-imperial British leaders. Mr Blair was not the first to yearn for an influence bigger than Britain’s now-diminished status justifies, and he is unlikely to be the last: David Cameron says reflexively that he wants Britain to "punch above its weight". For all their disillusionment over Mr Blair’s wars, lots of Britons want and expect serious international clout too.

The historian Linda Colley sees such imperial longing behind Britain’s devotion to the "special relationship". "Playing Boy Wonder to America’s Batman", as she puts it, is British politicians’ only chance of maintaining a global role--as if the American Revolution could somehow be cancelled and the two nations confront the world as one. On the other hand, a yen for independent greatness may lie behind the fear of emasculation by America that afflicts some Britons as well…

It is hard to think of another country so keen to magnify its accomplishments (everything must be "the best in the world"), yet also to wallow in its failings; so deluded and yet so morbidly disappointed. Every recent prime minister has struggled to overcome this sense of thwartedness and decline, and to come up with a notion of Britishness to replace the defunct imperial version. Mr Blair tried "Cool Britannia". It flopped. The gloom may be almost as acute now as it was in the late 1950s or 1970s.

It is arrogant to suppose that where other powers--Germany, say, or France--were traumatised by their losses, Britain could have lost an empire on which the sun never set, give or take a few tax havens, without side effects. It didn’t: looked at in a certain light, much of its recent history--military, political and economic--can be seen as a kind of post-imperial malaise.

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