Pip, pip for the Brits -- despite the blips
There is nothing comparable in scale or endurance to the Britannic inheritance
MARK STEYN | Feb 10, 2006
In 2003, Tony Blair spoke to the United States Congress. "As Britain knows," he said, "all predominant power seems for a time invincible but, in fact, it is transient. The question is: what do you leave behind?"
An excellent question -- though Mr. Blair forbore to answer on Britannia's behalf. Today, three-sevenths of the G7 major economies are nations of British descent. Of the 20 economies with the highest GDP per capita, no fewer than 11 are current or former realms of Her Britannic Majesty. And if you protest that most of those are pinprick colonial tax havens -- Bermuda, the Caymans -- well, okay, eliminate all territories with populations lower than 20 million and the Top Four is an Anglosphere sweep: the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. The key regional players in almost every corner of the globe are British-derived -- South Africa, India -- and, even among the lesser players, as a general rule you're better off for having been exposed to British rule than not: try doing business in Indonesia rather than Malaysia, or Haiti rather than St. Lucia.
And of course the dominant power of the age derives its political character from 18th-century British subjects who took English ideas a little further than the mother country was willing to go. As for the allegedly inevitable hyper-power of the coming century, if China ever does achieve that status, it will be because the People's Republic learned more from British Hong Kong than Hong Kong ever did from the Little Red Book. Sir John Cowperthwaite, the colony's transformative financial secretary in the '60s, died last month, and if Beijing weren't so twitchy about these things, they'd have him plastered over all their national emblems rather than Chairman Mao.
In other words, there is simply nothing comparable in scale or endurance to the Britannic inheritance. "While some nations suffer from folie de grandeur," wrote David Frum a year or two back, "the British seem uniquely disposed to badmouth themselves." In the late '60s, Sir Richard Turnbull, high commissioner of Aden, remarked bleakly to the defence secretary, Denis Healey, that the British Empire would be remembered for only two things -- "the popularization of Association Football [soccer] and the term 'f--k off.' " Instead of their bizarre cultural self-flagellation, the British might usefully deploy the latter formulation toward those kinky Eurofetishists who think the future lies in liquidating English law, custom and parliamentary democracy within the conglomeration of failed nation-states that make up the EU.
On the other hand, it has to be said that a remarkable number of the world's current trouble spots are also the legacy of Empire -- Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Kashmir and nuclear Pakistan. In 2003, I was in the West Bank and, suffering from overexposure to the neighbourhood's pervasive death-cultism, was beginning to feel physically nauseous. I needed to get back to Jordan in a hurry. "Where's the Allenby Bridge?" I asked a local. "Allenby Bridge?" said Mohammed. "Hang a left at the Hamas Under-11 Martyrs' Memorial, second right after Suicide Belts R Us and you can't miss it." I quote from memory. But, in the eternity it took to cross the river Jordan on that perpetually congested bridge from the West Bank to the Hashemites' relatively sane kingdom, I had plenty of time to reflect on the remarkable endurance of Allenby: a relatively obscure imperial commander remains a household name in one of the most disputed territories on Earth nearly nine decades after he took Jerusalem from Ottoman(i.e. Muslim)control.
For a generation or two, studies of the Britannic inheritance were mostly left to post-imperial Marxists. But, since 9/11, there's been a mini-boom in studies of the solar topee set. The whiff of compilation by an energetic research team hangs heavy over many: I would guess that Empire by Niall Ferguson is the bestselling volume, but it has the brisk anonymous feel of the book-of-the-telly-series about it. The most enjoyable is After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World, A. N. Wilson's idiosyncratic high-wire ramble across the years from Victoria's funeral to the present Queen's coronation. In the London press, Wilson is explicitly anti-American and, indeed, all but explicitly anti-Semitic: he's opposed to the liberation of Iraq and, to all intents and purposes, the existence of Israel. Almost all his conclusions are wrong, but along the way he has an eye for the telling anecdote, often from a source unlikely ever to have caught the eye of Ferguson or the more four-square historians. For example, Wilson quotes Simone Weil, the Parisian author and sometime Jew/Marxist/anarchist who came to Britain during the war to work for the Free French. Mlle Weil pondered why, alone among the European powers, it was England that had maintained "a centuries-old tradition of liberty guaranteed by the authorities." She was struck, Wilson writes, "by the fact that in the British Constitution the chief power is vested in one who is all but powerless, the monarch."
I hadn't thought of it quite like that before. But it's true that most of the alternatives to the Westminster system are predicated on the visible agglomeration of active demonstrable power: Communism, Fascism, the Iranian mullahs, the French presidency. . . .There is something peculiarly British in the vesting of sovereignty and supreme authority in a person who cannot wield it in any practical sense. Wilson has another good anecdote to underline the point: Princess Elizabeth was staying with Truman in the White House during the 1951 British election, when Attlee's Labour government was defeated by Churchill's Tories. The president told Her Royal Highness: "Honey, your father's been re-elected." The diffident stammering George VI as Rex et Imperator seems the apotheosis of Mlle Weil's thesis.
Endowing the sovereignty of the nation in an absentee monarch -- as Canada, Barbados, Belize, Tuvalu et al. do -- is an even more exquisite variation on the Weil theory: vesting power in its literal rather than merely political absence. But the Westminster system depends on a Westminster disposition. And the disadvantage, as we've seen in Gomery Canada this last decade, is that, if you're prepared to drive a coach-and-horses through the polite conventions, there's nothing very much that can be done about it. As Lord Acton almost said, all power corrupts but Liberal power corrupts very liberally. And the Grits' big red machine was by no means the first to realize that the Marquess of Queensbury doesn't always stand up to biker-gang tactics. The British system worked in India and Grenada and New Zealand. It proved less resilient in Zimbabwe and Iraq.
Indeed, if you step back, one way to look at the "war on terror" is as a belated civil war within the British Empire -- at any rate between the Anglosphere core(America, Britain, Australia, India)and a dysfunctional periphery(Gaza, the Pakistani tribal lands, the Sunni triangle), or between those territories that enjoyed the full attentions of the mother country and those it acquired in the Versailles settlement -- the last flickering fag-end of imperial expansion Margaret MacMillan captured so vividly in Paris 1919. Alas, for them, for their subjects and for the world today, when they finally got their hands on the Middle East, British imperialism had dwindled down to its bare bones: import some Hashemite prince, create a phony-baloney kingdom for him, and retreat to your bases.
Those American conservatives -- the realpolitik crowd -- who disdain "nation-building" ought to consider what the Indian sub-continent would look like if the British had been similarly skeptical: today, it might well be another Araby -- a crazy quilt of authoritarian sultanates and psychotic dictatorships. Conversely, many of the worst problems of our age arise from the shortcut nation-building and prototype transnationalism(Palestine and Iraq were not crown colonies but League of Nations "Mandates")of 80 years ago. If, like Michael Ignatieff, you found the Kosovo campaign -- long-range air war only -- morally dubious, Wilson notes that it was the RAF that pioneered aerial bombing as a five-and-dime form of imperial policing in the Somali and Afghan campaigns of 1919 and 1920. Churchill told the House of Commons it would have cost £6 million to wage a land war against Mullah Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan in Somaliland. Instead, six DH-9 bombers did it for £70,000. A bigger bang for the buck, though with no long-term returns.
The books aren't yet closed on imperial cost-benefit analysis. It seems likely that, insofar as any parts of the Western world survive the challenges of the next half-century, it will be the Anglosphere rather than Continental Europe.(Canada, being semi-Anglo, semi-Continental, is a more open question.)But, at the same time, those nations have to solve the problems the British ducked in the 1922 settlement of the Middle East. To conflate Dean Acheson and Sir Richard Turnbull, the British have lost an empire but it's not yet f--ked off.
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