Deline is back. Commentators note that the UK economy is not doing well and is expected to stagnate. Other countries are doing better, in terms of productivity, investment, research and skills. It really is deja vu once again. But not quite. Just yesterday we were being told a different story – one of the fastest growing rates in the OECD, a new global and buccaneering Britain, a scientific superpower, a hub of innovation, fastest vaccine deployment… What’s going on?
We live in an era of revivalism. At the base is an economic history which argues that Thatcherism had reversed Britain’s long-running economic decline, which may have begun in the 1870s, or possibly in 1945. From being the sick man of the Europe, the UK could once again be proud and return to a global role. This view has profoundly affected politics. New Labour, the party of cool post-decline Britannia, started talking about British leadership, about global Britain, about a particular internationalist destiny.
More recently, and more surprisingly, Brexiters have done the same. They took from New Labor a whole revivalist discourse – around creativity, entrepreneurship and globality. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May picked up on these themes, giving them a basis in British history. Because the UK was once the world champion of free trade, it is again. Because in the 17th century it was a key seat of the scientific revolution, and in the 18th century of the industrial revolution, it is in pole position to produce the innovations that will bring the world into the fourth industrial revolution.
Boris Johnson has managed to stay incredibly high on his own supply of rods. You can have a lot of fun at your expense by using the term “global” for every small success. But it was not the whim of an aberrant prime minister; rather, it was the ridiculous culmination of a systematic and mendacious revivalism that was at the heart of Brexit.
That Brexit is based on renewal rather than weaknesses in the economy is worth pondering. Brexiters could have made nationalist-decline hay pointing to the relative weakness of the British economy, its horribly negative trade balance with the EU, and claiming that EU membership was the cause of decline and poverty people. But they said none of that – they focused on immigration, on sovereignty, on pretending that we would keep exactly the same trading relationship. Brexiters were saying, in effect, that the EU had not hurt the British economy, but had simply limited its potential. Indeed, they accused the Remainers of being pessimists and pessimists who disparage the country. Declineism became for the first time in British history a term of political abuse.
It would not have been difficult to make a broader declinist case. After Thatcher and until today, economic growth rates have remained below those of the 1950s and 1960s, the supposed years of decline. The British economy has not caught up with the productivity of France or Germany. There has been no great outburst of British entrepreneurship creating new world-class businesses. Instead, more foreign companies have come to the UK. Inequality grew as the wealthy got richer not through entrepreneurship, but by effortlessly owning homes and stocks. The peculiarities of what happened in London, produced very largely by foreign capital and foreign know-how, did not mean a British success affecting the whole country.
But this case could not be made by Brexiters precisely because they believed in the revivalist thread and had no intention of doing anything real to transform the logic of economics. Brexit was built on multiple lies and also on a very particular understanding of the British economy. However, the fact that the UK is not currently in a good economic position, that its political and public life is toxic, that the quality of the state and many other things has declined, is not an argument to resuscitate the declinist theses. Remoaner’s declinism is not a truth to counter Brexiter’s revivalist lies.
Britain’s long-term relative decline, which has undoubtedly happened, and continues, was mainly due to the success of other countries, not the British failure. Rather than accepting this, declinists often explained things that didn’t happen, with explanations that didn’t work, based on bad history. Thus, the declinists insist that British R&D has always been weak, the City always overpowered, the country always in the grip of empire, the State under the imaginative control of classics and historians rather than technocrats , that the industry never had a chance.
It is a grim catalog, not of British failures, but of historical misunderstanding, which has deeply distorted the nation’s history.
Declineism, like revivalism, had its politics. Imperialism and a globalist orientation, the story said, explained Britain’s supposed hostility to domestic industrial development. Indeed, declinism was a core doctrine of post-war nationalist critics of Britain, notably those on the left such as Eric Hobsbawm and Perry Anderson. But there have also been declinations from the nationalist right, such as that of Correlli Barnett.
But they systematically erased from British history the very real nationalism, technocratic hubris and industrial development of the United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher had her own anti-union and cultural decline. Declinism also had its remnants and its outgoings. Some of the most enthusiastic Europhiles of the 1960s and 1970s were declinists. On the other hand, the left-Brexiters of the 1970s and 1980s were decliners who believed that joining the EEC reinforced the decline.
Today’s British economy and society are much more affected by recent history than by ancient history. The growing inequality, between people and between regions, the rentierisation of the economy, the stagnation of productivity, this is a recent development. It’s not something eternal, it’s something created. Neither the panoplies of the revivalists (a deceptive Brexit) nor the declinists (more industry, R&D, technocracy) will bring the UK back even to where it was relatively in 1979.
Because declinism like revivalism are the symptoms of a nation incapable of assuming its place in the world. Both are stuck in nationalist insularity: one claims that the nation is reborn, the other that it can be reborn, take its rightful place in world affairs. But understanding this real place and the real nature of capitalism in the UK, and crucially in the world as a whole, is at the heart of any possibility of transformative politics, and it requires in particular that England be modest about of a nation with a lot to do. be modest.