Decline Can Make Britain a Better Country

"You're just jealous!" an American-accented heckle rose, directed at the Brits. A speaker was condemning American power over the planet to an auditorium at University College London way back in 2001. The audience turned to the heckler and laughed.

The cover feature of Newsweek International ('Shrinking Britannia: The Collapse of British Power) combines the struggling British military performance in southern Afghanistan and the current recession's almighty blow to the prestige of London as a financial center to produce a somewhat pitying portrait of an island power in freefall. Should Brits be worried (and jealous)?

The United States enjoyed at the beginning of the 21st century what Britain had 100 years before -- unrivaled power to shape the world as its rulers saw fit. American readers will know that the British Empire used that power to burn down parts of Washington in 1812 and bully Lincoln throughout the Civil War while threatening to jump in on the side of Southern slave-owners.

The balance of power between the two had long been shifting as Britain begged for American weaponry and money during Nazi Germany's assault in 1940. Later, a cash-strapped London would hand its sordid war effort on behalf of Greek fascists and monarchists to the US in 1947. British PM Anthony Eden withdrew in humiliation from his invasion of Egypt in 1956 after a telling-off from President Eisenhower. And when the Royal Navy gave up its leading role in the Persian Gulf in 1971, the long process of handing wannabe-masters-of-the-world status from Britain to America was complete.

Jealous? Not really. After World War II, British Tories and Labour's hawks generally embraced the Atlantic alliance, transferring affection from the Empire to the Pentagon readily enough. Resentment at decline was directed at other targets like the European Union, Russia, assorted Third World upstarts and the Irish. Serious criticism of US foreign policy doesn't usually come from Britons who wish the Empire could still party like it's 1775.

The increasing unpopularity of today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Britain, where the cost has been higher than that of any other US ally, suggests a distinct lack of enthusiasm for attempting to govern other parts of the world by force, let alone envy of the global superpower.

Some of the exhibits Newsweek's Stryker McGuire produces to make his case are not really as damning as all that. Britain's budget deficit is very large but is not the end of life as we know it, and not an historical standout compared to other Western nations during periods of crisis. The British Army got stuck in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but the vastly larger US army has not fared better -- a bad idea that runs up against the limits of power usually won't work, whoever's flag is attached. In Sierra Leone, the British Army pulled off a limited success in 2000 in a continent where the US and France have floundered. The growth of China and India affects the global balance of power as a whole, not just for Britain.

But if, in the words of Tory foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, "It will become more difficult over time for Britain to exert on world affairs the influence which we are used to," I would encourage readers to imagine that this could be a good thing for Britain and the world, bearing in mind that what "we are used to" is exerting influence for such miserable purposes as subverting the UN Charter to invade Iraq or forcing the ill-nourished peoples of West African nations to give up their dwindling fish stocks to European trawlers.

Stryker McGuire notes that "Even in the decades after it lost its empire, Britain strode the world like a pocket superpower. Its economic strength and cultural heft, its nuclear-backed military might, its extraordinary relationship with America -- all these helped this small island nation to punch above its weight class." Putting aside economic strength and cultural heft -- assets which we'll return to -- readers might consider how dignified the role of international bullying side-kick is. And punching above your weight is not so much fun if all you end up with is a bloody, torn fist.

Consider some lowlights of Britain's post-War world-striding in a string of conflicts and skullduggery that virtually no one here has heard of (there aren't even war memorials for the British dead for most of our post-War wars). In 1944, Churchill invaded Greece as part of an abortive plan with Stalin to divide up the Balkans between London and Moscow, ordering the army to treat Greeks as a conquered people. The Atlee government invaded southern Vietnam to return the Vietnamese to French rule (which turned out... oh you know what happens next, don't you?). Britain's first Labour government hanged their Malaysian labour union equivalents before waging an ugly war against the Malay Chinese minority. The Tory Anthony Eden launched his soon-to-be-canceled invasion of Egypt in 1956 to recapture the Suez Canal for England in an act of such blatant aggression that it united the US and the USSR in condemnation. Harold Macmillan, Lord Alec-Douglas Home and Edward Heath -- all Tory PM's -- plotted in 1960 with the Americans and Belgians in the successful effort to assassinate the first elected Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, who was kidnapped, shot, dismembered and dissolved in acid. Labour's Harold Wilson backed the Nigerian generals in one of the 20th century's first home-grown African genocides in Biafra, prompting John Lennon to return the MBE Wilson awarded him in disgust in 1969. Edward Heath's government found promise in Ugandan officer Idi Amin and prepared him for power where he proceeded to slaughter the population of his country. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed the greatness of Anglo-American liberty while protecting Apartheid South Africa in its final destruction of every African country within its reach.

Thatcher proved so promisingly ruthless that she was hired for the Reagan administration's scheme to provide anti-personnel mines to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge of 'Killing Fields' fame, something which the Reagan White House uncharacteristically felt too squeamish to do themselves. Thatcher explained this policy -- I kid you not -- on the long-running children's television show, Blue Peter.

And there's a lot, lot more where this came from, including the centerpiece of Churchill's war in central Kenya in the 50s, explored in recent books such as Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag and David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged. There the British army herded hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu into rotten concentration camps where they died in their tens of thousands while hanging so many Kenyan rebels for such offenses as the possession of firearms that Churchill ordered the hangings be spaced out a little, fearing they would look like "mass executions".

Parts of the world may miss the British exertion of influence much less than you'd think. But as we glance at this catalog of outrages, there are other episodes from history that tell a more promising story of a different kind of role for Britain, and what a more democratic foreign policy would look like.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries an entirely sincere movement against the Atlantic slave trade gained momentum. This would be the age of the cruelest British expansionism from Ireland to India, from China to Sudan, where torrents of blood were spilled by Empire-builders motivated by greed, underlined by racism. And yet, the issue of slavery struck a deep chord with the British public. The abolitionists gathered massive petitions calling for its end, even though freeing the slaves came at a steep economic cost to Britain as a whole. Slavery was abolished throughout the Empire in the 1830s.

Public sentiment on the issue remained rock solid. The Victorian Royal Navy would forcibly shut down the slave-traders of West Africa and capture hundreds of slave galleys. When the US Civil War began in 1861 -- British governments had the ability to help the cotton-king slave-masters of the South win, and repeatedly considered doing just that, while the ever-unpleasant British press jeered at Lincoln. But the sheer unpopularity of slavery among the British public helped save Lincoln. Confederate leaders despaired of getting Britain onside so long as its people continued to find slavery disgusting. Dirt-poor textile workers in northern English mill towns refused to use cotton picked by American slaves, whose plight they would never have even seen in a photograph. Consider the depth of their feeling and sacrifice. Lincoln was moved to reply to a letter of support from textile workers in Manchester, praising in his response their "sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country". That was one of our finest hours.

The triumph of the Abolitionists and the impact they had on Westminster offer an alternative view of British power -- a foreign policy that reflects the generosity of the people rather than the cynical ambitions of those who want power in the world in order to exploit its peoples and resources as they see fit.

To the pessimism inherent in talk of British decline, consider what a country with such "economic strength (present recession considered) and cultural heft," could do.

The increasing prominence of economies in China, India and South America -- if they can weather the harsh 21st century -- represents a long overdue move to a more democratic global order where the peoples of the poorer south have a real say. No point resisting or fretting over this -- Britain could instead be creating, developing and sticking with the international institutions and laws that can help guarantee for us a world based on law-abiding co-operation rather than imperial rivalry and national warlordism.

The "strength and cultural heft" of what is still one of the world's largest economies can be put to work on the most-pressing long-term security threats we face -- freshwater and energy shortages, global warming, pandemics, natural disasters, organized crime and mass refugee flows in ways that would do much more for our prestige and safety than clinging to Trident submarines or an absurdly privileged position on the UN Security Council.

A British foreign policy that is idealistic and realistic (these are not opposing qualities) -- that would be a source of pride and not of shame -- can only come about if the institutions that make it have to reflect public opinion. When Lord Butler's inquiry in 2004, criticized Tony Blair's "sofa cabinet" in which a handful of people informally and secretively agreed on invading Iraq with George Bush -- it was a reminder that foreign policy in the West is little more democratic today than it was in the age of Bismark and Napoleon III. British voters should avoid despairing in the face of malaise and give thought to changing the mark we leave on the world -- and how we can make it happen.