12 July 2010

Once Great Britain

Spot-on opinion piece by Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting in the CiF column.
What "punching above your weight" means in practice is unbridled ambition and massive risk-taking. The obvious parallels with BP are those other former giants of British corporate power, the banks HBOS and RBS. All are now cautionary tales of corporate hubris. In 1998 Blair made a speech in Dublin in which he talked of Britain "emerging from a post-imperial malaise". It was the era of Cool Britannia and the beginning of Blair's military adventures: culture, finance, military participation and corporate ambition were the key, mutually reinforcing, planks of his project.

One by one they have either led us to some form of disaster (financial sector, BP), or to embarrassing failure (liberal interventionism in Iraq and Afghanistan). Last August Newsweek's London bureau chief, Stryker McGuire, wrote a front-cover article on how time was up for "once-great Britain". He argued that Blair had tried one final stab at greatness by locking Britain into America's wars, but that he was merely postponing the inevitable decline in the country's place in the world.
Bunting is an historian and is presumably well aware that "unbridled ambition and massive risk-taking" was what made Britain a world power back in the day. Also that the "Great" in Great Britain had nothing to do with world power and that the title came about as a result of the political union of the England and Scotland in 1706-07.

So, cheap American digs at the country they displaced on the world stage aside, what remains? That Britain should learn to live inside its means, that those means do not extend to fighting wars alongside the hyperpower, and that far from "emerging from a post-imperial malaise", under Blair's frivolous leadership the country jumped right back into it.

The empire was won by a small number of people, mainly Scots, who found escape abroad from the suffocating mediocrity of their country of birth. Those people are gone - but the suffocating mediocrity remains.

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