Declinism is rife[↗] in the United Kingdom (UK), as it is to varying degrees in most liberal democracies. British declinism, recently wrapped up in debates around Brexit, comes in many guises: ‘Little[↗] England[↗]’; ‘Little[↗] Britain[↗]’; Remoanism[↗]; mocking[↗] the concept of ‘Global Britain’; ‘National Hobbitism[↗]’; or more simply, the UK as a ‘middle-ranking offshore island[↗]’.
The declinist mentality in Britain is nothing new. As George Orwell stated[↗] back in 1941: ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’ This declinist mentality has become so pervasive that it appears right through to pop-culture, like Slowthai’s 2019 critically acclaimed album ‘Nothing Great about Britain[↗]’ or the band Sea Power’s recent removal[↗] of the word ‘British’ from their name.
Indeed, two-thirds[↗] of the British public believe that the UK is ‘in decline’ and over half believe that the young will have a worse time of it than their parents. ‘Remainers’ and Labour voters are then more likely[↗] to believe in Britain’s decline than ‘Leavers’ and Conservatives: they see Britain as a ‘middle-ranking’ country whose only concern should be to be part of a liberal and progressive Europe[↗], represented by the European Union (EU). Furthermore, the little UK island-nation is also depicted as helpless against the twin titans of the 21st century: the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Helpless even against Russia and Iran, who, while admittedly shrewd and wiley, have astonishingly fragile economies.
But there is more than just a corrupted national story at play here. Britons are bedevilled by human psychology. According to one study[↗] by Hans Rosling, late Co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, 12,000 people in 14 countries were asked basic questions about the state of the world. 15% answered none correctly, the average was two out of 12 and no one got them all correct. Education, experience and nationality did not change the result and, in some cases, made it worse.
Misconceptions are critical, as is the language we use, language that often reinforces those misconceptions. Declinism deforms how a country sees itself. But who or what else is to blame – journalists? Maybe. But Rosling himself made the point that we should not ‘demonise journalists: they have the same mega misconceptions as everyone else.’ So where to look?
In part, liberalism and a belief in teleology – compounded in recent decades by Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History[↗]’ – has some role in this. Many Britons have viewed the history of civilisation as teleological for at least two centuries. If it is ‘grand forces’ that are responsible for the state of the world, the UK’s role and agency in the creation of that world has to be ignored or overlooked.
Meanwhile, the ‘discursive statecraft[↗]’ of foreign powers is also to blame; in other words ‘not outright political warfare’, but ‘positioning operations’ conducted by adversaries, competitors and even allies. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with its comments that the UK is ‘merely a country of old Europe suitable for tourism and overseas study, with a few decent football teams’, and the Kremlin are the major rival state instigators of this narrative-based statecraft. Allies also narrate the position of the UK, to reinforce policy decisions they desire and discourage those they dislike. Whilst such efforts are not directly hostile, their negative impacts should not be ignored. These narratives, whether from friend or foe, require well-considered repostes.
In reality, however, much of the damaging misconception comes from within. Ideological dissatisfaction with the direction of one’s country can lead to a determination that it has lost its way, corrupting the core narrative that supports societal and cultural cohesion. This makes it even harder to counter hostile positioning efforts. One should not interpret this as dangerously nostalgic. Stories, myths and legends are central; we tell them to and for ourselves, to form an identity and, in many ways, this is what the EU and ‘Project Europe[↗]’ lacks.
Arise, ‘Global Britain’?
So what story should the British people tell themselves? After Brexit, many thought[↗] the UK’s future only existed
as a humble member of the EU club. Now we have left it, further decline is inevitable, even deserved, as punishment for the national pride of those populist plebs and their leaders.
But what if ‘Global Britain’ can be a new national story, one of ‘a once-in-a-lifetime geostrategic realignment that could have[↗] lasting implications for the country’s future’?
Take the example Robert Tombs, a Professor Emeritus of French History at the University of Cambridge, makes[↗], that ‘Russia, with an economy the same size as Spain’s, behaves like a superpower in the Middle East and is treated as one.’ At a base level – regionally – Britain is a critical power, with an economy, military and magnitude of influence that sits at the top of the leading three of Europe. On top of that, the UK is committed to an international resurgence as outlined in the Integrated Review, has notably increased its defence spending and, despite Covid-19, and is predicted to have the fastest recovery[↗] of all Group of Seven nations.
Ultimately it is not about ‘Little England’, ‘Little Britain’ or even ‘Great Britain’ – size does not really matter[↗]. Part of ‘Global Britain’ going forward has to be about reducing (mis)conceptions and the language used to create them, generating a new national story (or myth and legend even), and, ultimately, demonstrating that the UK is a scientific and technological pioneer – the true foundations of national power.
In the 21st century, Britain has much potential to offer to the world, and the type of language used to describe the country’s global position and role fundamentally frames how Britons understand their potential. Change the language and it is possible to change the mindset of an entire generation.
James Thorp is an officer in the British Army. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Join our mailing list!
Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World