It is fashionable to say that the British Empire was already in decline before the opening of the twentieth century: The thirty years after the German state was created in 1871 saw a spectacular leap forward in German technology, and German speaking science, from Einstein and Freud to Robert Bosch, was rapidly taking the lead. The huge market of the the newly open American Frontier was driving the massive wealth of the gilded age. The Russian Empire then, as now, despite the mass of its down trodden people, was producing legendary levels of wealth for its elite of princes and industrialists.
Yet despite this, the Royal Navy continued to rule the waves, and British technology was creating the largest car making and ship building industries in the world.
Then came 1914.
The weakness of the British economy was that the education system remained very narrowly focused. Twenty or thirty public schools provided the aristocratic elite with an education that was detached from the rest of society. Imbued with the traditions of Sparta, these public schoolboys were amongst the first to volunteer in 1914. One million men were killed, and they were disproportionately amongst the best educated. This was why the political generation that led the country between the 1930s and the 1960s were so old: the generation that would have been the leaders were buried on Flanders fields.
The First World War devastated Britain. With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the United Kingdom ended up losing more territory after the war than Germany did. Even the Empire began to loosen its ties with the homeland. Appalled by the incompetence and brutality of British leadership at ANZAC Cove and Vimy Ridge, Australia, New Zealand and Canada had found new national identities forged in the fires of the Western Front. In 1931, the Dominions essentially became independent, and it was clear that the debate on the future of India, the largest possession of the Empire, could not be stilled forever. Furthermore, the economic policy mistakes of the 1920s undermined investment in British industry, and the country endured a drastic loss of competitiveness. To add to the country's woes, it continued to abjure debt restructuring, and paid its debts to the United States in full- when all others could not or did not.
The exhaustion and the missing generation made the British certain that virtually nothing could be worse than fighting another war, and the result was fatal. In the face of the challenge of the deranged megalomaniac, Adolf Hitler, the British initially chose appeasement. Yet it was a policy which made the eventual war, when it finally did come, a struggle for the very survival of the Nation. Between June 1940 and June 1941, when Hitler attacked his erstwhile Soviet Ally, Britain and its Empire did indeed stand alone- assisted only by some very conditional and limited US lend-lease. Churchill spoke of the "finest hour" of the British Empire and people, but the price of the finest hour was the very Empire itself. It was not until 1942 that the United States fully joined the Second World War. Two and a half years later, at Yalta, Roosevelt had a choice between the Soviet Empire and the British Empire, and astonishingly he chose Stalin. Yet by that time, the British Empire could not have been sustained without the assistance of the United States anyway. Although by 1949, the Americans realised their mistake, it was already too late. The British economy was on its knees- with food rationing to continue into the 1950s.
In the face of the challenge of the murderous Soviet system, Britain- shorn of virtually every last one of its colonial outposts, no matter how small- locked its fate together with that of the United States. While Macmillan hoped the country would become "Greece to America's Rome", the partnership was in fact far more one sided. Although it was at least as much British know-how as American that contributed to the Manhattan Project, the United Kingdom was not given access to nuclear secrets, and the end of the Blue Streak ballistic missile project was also the end of any deterrent that did not rely on American missile technology. The special relationship meant that the United States based tens of thousands of military personnel in the UK, and was integrated to a certain degree into the military and intelligence decision making process in Washington D.C. but there was- and is- no question about who was the junior partner.
By the 1970s, the Soviet involvement in the British Trade Union movement had contributed to the catastrophic decline of the British economy. Despite the renewal of the special relationship, between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, US support for Britain in for example, the Falklands war, was as vital to Britain as it was conditional- for example extending the terms of the American lease on Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean territory.
I make this historical excursion because David Cameron's mistake in suggesting that Britain was America's junior ally in 1940 is reflective of a mindset that struggles to see Britain in an independent way. As the coolness in US-UK relationships continues, based perhaps on President Obama's contempt for an Empire that was actively resisted by his own father, the other point that Mr. Cameron made- that the special relationship can only be based on special interests is obviously valid. It also underlines a potential new national debate.
The fall of the Soviet system has created new challenges: the rise of China and India in particular could well mark the relative eclipse of the United States as a global hegemony. Yet it is the politics of British decline that concerns me here. To quote Dean Acheson once again: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and has yet to find a role". The problem is, I think, one of National ideology. The United States continues to think in terms of American exceptionalism- in precisely the way that the British imperialists once thought of themselves. Yet as British decline has continued, the country has struggled to identify what makes it special or even what makes it itself.
We are confronted with decline on a daily basis. One of the most common sentences when we describe our country is that we can "still" do something. We can still show the world pomp and circumstance, military efficiency, good quality products and so on. The problem is that when in the past you have been number one at virtually everything, it all seems a bit lack lustre. It also makes it difficult to decide where to focus our efforts in the modern world. We don't know who we are.
In fact the country can barely decide what to call itself. The official name of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is absurdly too long. "Great Britain" or Britain , does not include the Irish component of the State, while "The United Kingdom" or "UK" simply describes the political structure, with no mention of geography. Other countries don't know what to call us either: "England" is most usual- though I did hear an American use Great Britain when he meant England- "we will go to Great Britain and to Scotland". This failure to even describe who we are reflects the fact of separatism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it also blurs our identity.
How can we know who we are, if we don't even know what to call ourselves?
If we are going to undergo a process of national renewal, we need to understand what our goals are, and what our agenda is: in short, Britain needs a national ideology. It is time to accept the old ways of doing things, from an unsustainable and unfair welfare state, to maintaining an unreformed political system with an only partially democratic Parliament, is holding us back. We need to open up our society to renewal.
The question then is to accept the things we need to change and to change them, and to maintain the things we should maintain- including our armed forces. The question is whether our political leaders have the wisdom to tell the difference.
It is time to turn the page on our long history of decline and to establish new ground rules that will allow us to recover a sense of national self respect- a process that is now long overdue.