This is the original, English-language version of an article published in Polish this weekend in Gazeta Wyborcza. The Polish translation can be found here.
As outsiders and Britons alike try to understand the result of Britain’s EU referendum, it is tempting simply to refer to Acheson’s dictum that ‘Britain has lost an empire but has not yet found a role’ and assume that all can be explained by a surge of imperial nostalgia, reflecting Britain’s mental semi-detachment from the continent and the natural insularity of those who dwell on an island.
But although those things are still relevant, they do not go nearly enough in explaining the state of British politics and society today. Acheson was right, but a lot has changed since 1962. After decades of agonising, Britain did find a role with which it appeared to be comfortable, as a medium-sized power with special privileges, one of the United States’ major allies and its European lieutenant within NATO, and one of the three major powers within the European Union.
It is a much more recent loss of faith in this post-imperial role that helps to explain why Britons opted for what Prime Minister David Cameron – who has announced his intention to resign – described during the campaign as “the self-destruct option” of departure from the European Union.
Britain suffered a prolonged imperial hangover during the first half of the Cold War, as creeping economic scleroris and strategic retreat exposed the constraints on Britain’s global ambitions.
The post-war fiction of John le Carré and Ian Fleming – both members of MI6 – demonstrated two very different ways that members of the Establishment coped with the trauma of decline: whereas the former surrendered to gloom and moral ambiguity, the latter created a fantasy world in which a glorified boy scout in a bow tie showed that We Still Had It.
By the 1970s, Britain’s domestic problems were so acute that a return to global primacy was no longer seriously countenanced. Having declared in 1964 during his first stint as Prime Minister that Britain was “a world power and a world influence or it is nothing”, by 1974 Labour’s Harold Wilson was being warned by his advisers that the British economy was facing ‘possible wholesale liquidation’.
Forced in 1976 to apply for an emergency loan from the IMF, an institution that Britain had helped to establish in 1945 so as to assist with the economic problems of developing nations, the country appeared to be heading straight from the ‘Big Three’ of Yalta and Potsdam to the Third World.
It was this fear of the abyss that helped sweep Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street in 1979. Throughout the 1980s she fought – and won – the economic and political battles that her predecessors had shied away from too long, reversing Britain’s seemingly interminable decline in the process.
Necessary though they may have been, Thatcher’s victories came at a high cost to national and social cohesion. Illustrating the mixture of gratitude and relief felt by many Britons after her departure in 1990, journalist and commentator Simon Jenkins told a TV documentary that “She was terrific, she gave us the medicine, we took the medicine, it was painful, it was awful, but she was gone – thank God!”
But if Britain was deluded in the 1960s, disintegrating in the 1970s, and divided in the 1980s, by the 1990s it seemed to have achieved deliverance. Exhausted by a decade of Thatcherism, Britons sought refuge in consensus, a period during which a series of Big Questions appeared to have been settled.
In foreign and defence policy, Britain re-invented itself as a muscular moral actor, a sort of Canada with nukes. John Major participated in the Gulf War of 1990-1 to defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whilst Tony Blair participated in NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 in defence of the country’s Albanian Kosovar minority, outlining in a speech in Chicago that same year a doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was to guide Britain’s international thinking as it entered the 21st century.
In economic policy, both Major and Blair left Thatcher’s economic settlement largely intact, Major laying the foundations for a decade of economic growth whilst Blair invested the proceeds of that growth in Britain’s public services – his much-trumpeted ‘Third Way’, a concept borrowed off Bill Clinton, seemingly resolving the longstanding and class-rooted hostility between labour and capital that had dogged Britain for so long.
A series of other sources of anxiety also appeared to have been resolved. In 1990 and 1996, England reached the semi-finals of major football tournaments for the first time since they won the World Cup in 1966, and appeared to have left behind decades of shameful football hooliganism by successfully hosting Euro ’96.
‘Three Lions’, the unofficial anthem of that year’s team – and that year’s summer – captured the changing mood of the country, its good humour and realistic appraisal of England’s chances a stark contrast to the chauvinism and self-delusion more commonly associated with English football fans.
More importantly, in 1998 final resolution was reached for the Northern Ireland conflict, with unionist and nationalist politicians, including those formerly involved or suspected of having been involved in the violence of ‘The Troubles’ agreeing to a power-sharing deal.
This changing mood was personified by Tony Blair, elected Prime Minister in 1997, and illustrated by the reaction to the death of Princess Diana three months later.
For a brief period of time the country was defined by the concept of ‘Cool Britannia’ – a marketing gimmick, but which like all good marketing gimmicks, captured something real. The slogan remains in the national consciousness as shorthand for the fleeting spirit of the times: a re-interpretation of what it meant to be British, with the Union flag no longer standing for imperialism but for multiculturalism, an inclusive identity, and civic virtues.
Blair radiated an almost unhinged optimism about Britain’s capacity to transform itself and to shape the world around it, his disregard for establishment traditions a stark contrast to the competent but – to put it mildly – unloved Conservatives that had preceded him.
Although it was a tragic event, the outpouring of grief in response to Diana’s death was a kind of collective national exorcism, when Britons appeared to unburden themselves of centuries of emotional restraint. The near-mutinous mood towards the Royal Family and their failure to respond in a manner corresponding with the mood of their subjects was an indication of the fraying of the ties of deference that whilst holding society together, had also made it difficult to breathe.
But the optimism of that time has long since turned sour.
The 9/11 attacks reminded Britons, among others, that the world remained a dangerous and dispiriting place that could not so easily be shaped by fine words, good intentions and the occasional humanitarian intervention.
That sense of foreboding was confirmed by Britain’s travails in Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of the 2000s. Although most of the public’s attention was initially focused on the moral dimension of Britain’s decision to go involve herself in the two countries, our apparent failures in Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan raised perhaps an even more delicate question: whether or not it was right to go in, did Britain’s senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials and their political masters even know what they were doing?
In addition to the loss of the moral high-ground in international affairs, the other pillar of British optimism, the economy, also came crumbling down, as a result of the financial crash of the late 2000s.
Far from representing the correct balance between free market enterprise and social justice, Britain’s pre-crash economic model was exposed as one of dangerously unsustainable public spending founded upon a reckless over-dependence on Britain’s booming financial sector.
The financial crash meant a collapse in tax receipts, leaving the British state hopelessly exposed to spending commitments it could no longer afford, on top of the gargantuan debt it had accrued even when times were good. The result has been a government austerity drive that began in 2010 and is not scheduled to end until 2020 at the earliest.
In the wake of the financial crisis, Britain’s confidence was hit further by a series of scandals and demoralising events across a wide range of national institutions.
Parliament suffered a humiliating expenses scandal; terrible failures of care were exposed in the National Health Service, the reputation of the police was catastrophically damaged by a series of debilitating scandals, the BBC was rocked by historic allegations of child abuse against a series of much-loved television presenters and entertainers; tabloid newspapers were exposed as having hacked the voicemail services of hundreds of public figures, including that of a young girl who had been murdered; in 2011 Britain suffered its worst urban rioting since the early 1980s.
Many Britons’ faith in establishment multiculturalism and internationalism was also shaken by the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and a subsequent decade of terror threats, the unexpectedly high levels of immigration after EU enlargement in 2004, and the recent travails of the European Union in general and the Eurozone in particular.
Making a series of bad situations worse, this all happened against the backdrop of the rise of social media, which as almost every country has found, has sharpened political and social divisions and facilitated a rise in cynicism, nihilism and hatred.
If the fresh-faced Tony Blair of 1997 embodied Britain’s half-decade between the late 1990s and early 2000s during which it was finally at ease with itself, the Tony Blair of today – as reviled as he was once revered – stands as testament to Britain’s present state of disillusion.
A portrait of Blair by the artist Phil Hale, painted in 2007 towards the end of Blair’s premiership, portrays a haunted, even broken man staring downwards and into the distance, as if through the floor beneath him and into the depths of his conscience. Now a tragic, almost Shakespearean figure, Blair is reviled not just because of disillusionment over his unfulfilled – unfulfillable – promise and the disgrace of Iraq, but because of the sums of money he has since earned by advising some of the world’s nastiest tin-pot dictators.
Blair confronts us with a version of ourselves of which we are terrified: not just weak, but unprincipled; not just demoralised, but undignified; no longer the world’s aristocrats, but butlers for the new super-rich.
In order to leave behind the present sense of stagnation, discontent, and drift, many Britons have been seeking catharsis, some great reform or change that will herald a new era for the country, or at the very least punish those they blame for a myriad of problems, real and imagined.
For years, they remained caught between a desire for change and the natural caution and scepticism that has served them so well for so long. In 2011, the country voted on a new electoral system, but rejected it emphatically. In 2014, Scots voted on whether to leave the United Kingdom (and in so doing, to end it), but took the decision that the Bright New Future promised by nationalist politicians probably didn’t exist. When it came to Brexit, it seemed that Britons would tip-toe to the end of the diving-board before deciding to turn back.
Instead, they jumped.
They did so as a result of the collapse in authority of Britain’s two major political parties, whose rivalry, rooted in a society divided between labour and capital that no longer exists, has defined British politics for over a century.
The Conservative Party may be in power, but the toxic relationship between its pro-European, moderate leadership and its rebellious, anti-European membership is the reason the referendum was called in the first place. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has a far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys a fantastic relationship with his membership but such a weak rapport with the general public that he and his party have little realistic prospect of power – and bear much of the responsibility for working class voters abandoning the party and its recommendation to Remain.
Whereas the Labour Party began as a grassroots movement that later entered parliament, the Conservative Party began as a parliamentary faction that later developed a grassroots movement. Each have served their purpose and are going back to their roots, like old men who made their fortunes in the Big City but are now returning to their home villages to die.
Although the terrible killing of popular MP Jo Cox reminded the public how fortunate they are to have so many public servants of the highest calibre, the mood remains dark, and may well get darker; a ‘Leave’ vote in Britain will do little to allay widespread fear that our inner turmoil – and that of the rest of the continent – is going to stay with us for many years to come.