In the 1970s, the United Kingdom was beset by declinism. The political class and the diplomatic service were certain that Britain’s best days were long over. Sir Nicholas Henderson, the British ambassador to Paris, summed up the mood in 1979 when he lamented: ‘today we are not only no longer a world power, but we are not in the first rank even as a European one.’ In many ways, the declinists were right. The United Kingdom was suffering seriously from economic inefficiencies and would never again become the power it once was: a global power, in every sense, above and beyond even the contemporary United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain was simply a different sort of power: it was an order of magnitude far removed from any other country before or since, a position no power has ever held – bar perhaps the first agricultural city states in the Middle East. While every other country was still agrarian, the United Kingdom had become an industrial, maritime superpower, with the ability to use its technological supremacy to defeat anyone, at any time, and almost anywhere.
With the rise of the United States and Soviet Russia in 1945, Britain was simply too small to compete alongside the new continental superpowers – and in any case, one was an ally, the other an enemy. But the declinists were hoodwinked by their own narrative. They had turned a problem into an obsession. They believed too strongly in Britain’s decline, perhaps because it had fallen from such a lofty height. While the United Kingdom was no longer a hegemonic power – with the ability to literally change the course of world history – it was still a great power and could do a lot of things other countries could not.
This is what – for all her faults, and make no mistake, she had many – Margaret Thatcher realised. She knew that Britain was not going to fall forever, and that someone had to stop the rot. The opportunity came in 1982, when the regime in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Her response was the rapid generation and dispatch of a large expeditionary force, the manifestation of which proved how the British were still a formidable power, and – crucially – on a global scale. No other country – perhaps not even Soviet Russia – could send an expeditionary force some 13,000 kilometres into the South Atlantic, into a hostile maritime environment where the nearest air station was 6,000 kilometres away, and decisively defeat a substantial regional power (one armed with modern British and French weapons). And though the Argentines will never acknowledge it, the British victory was so overwhelming that it liberated them from a nasty regime and paved the way for the democratic transformation of their nation.
The Falklands Conflict woke the United Kingdom up; it put Britain back on the world map by revealing that it remained a global power. So if she did anything good, Mrs. Thatcher put an end to declinism. Today, however, declinism haunts Britain once again. The economy needs reform and diversification and the military has suffered substantial cuts. However, declinism must not be allowed to re-emerge: the British may never again be the superpower they once were, but their geography, allied to their cultural, economic and military resources, will probably keep them in the top-tier of world powers indefinitely, so long as they retain a global outlook, good policy and a degree of confidence.
By mid-century – short of an unforeseen catastrophe – Britain’s economy will remain in the world’s top ten. Based on current projections, Britain will be the dominant power in Europe by 2050 – and in every area, having gained economic parity with Germany, which will become progressively hobbled by an ageing and declining population. Boosted by a high fertility rate, and immigration, Britain will grow to contain the largest population in Europe, overtaking Germany by the late-2040s. And culturally, it is hard to see any other European power emerging with the ability to overcome Britain’s capacity to attract others to its popular culture, liberal values and ancient democratic system. Moreover, except perhaps for Russia, it is very unlikely that there will be any significant geopolitical opponents to the United Kingdom in the wider European region. What is more, the country’s Armed Forces will not only remain Europe’s strongest – and by an increasingly large margin due to unrelenting military spending cuts in other European countries – but will also acquire capabilities that they have never had before, such as 65,000 tonne pocket supercarriers and remotely-piloted stealth global combat aircraft.
But this does not mean London should become politically complacent. Rather than a new bout of declinism, Britain must work harder to re-establish its Asian connexions. It must maintain its ability to support Australia, Malaysia and Singapore in the face of potential Chinese aggression, while it simultaneously boosts its strategic and cultural ties to Japan, India and Indonesia. The British must also keep themselves laser-focused on Europe – their strategic garden: London must work harder than ever to bolster British influence, and establish a new European grid of British power. In particular, London would be well-advised to pay far closer attention to its allies in Northern Europe – particularly as the ‘High North’ is opened up by climate change and as a potential new maritime communication line is established to East Asia as a result. Britain should firmly anchor itself into the Baltic and Nordic spaces, acting as a security provider for the smaller – often very pro-British – nations in the region; and it should boost its ties with Poland, a longstanding friend, to keep Russia’s distracting influence to a minimum.
In the south, the United Kingdom should also upgrade its relations with Spain and Turkey – not least by supporting Turkish accession into the European Union – to keep both involved in supporting a safe and secure Mediterranean. In return for Spanish support for British hegemony in the Mediterranean, London should help Spain bolster itself against Argentina’s attempts to dislocate Spanish companies, while helping Madrid to keep Moroccan designs on the Canary Isles and the Spanish African enclaves to a minimum. And – all the while – London should work closer and closer with France, its century-long ally, across every military, political and economic spectrum. This will ensure that Europe’s two pre-eminent powers assume the strategic European obligations of their hard-pressed superpower friend, the United States, as it gradually pivots – as it must – towards the Indo-Pacific space.
• Photo credit: Mageslayer99.