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Dispatches From a Fading Empire

By Michael A. Genovese

The earthquake was barely felt and hardly noticed outside of England. On May 7, 2015, the British Conservative Party shocked everyone, including themselves, and won an absolute majority of Parliamentary seats giving them sole control of the government. After five years of coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, their former coalition partners, were cast aside, and the Conservatives were in the driver’s seat with no need to bargain and no need to compromise. Britain’s is an all-or-nothing type of democracy, and the Conservatives had it all.

In the May general election, the Conservatives gained seats, the Lib-Dems and Labor lost seats, and the Scottish National Party won almost all the available seats in Scotland, thereby placing squarely on the national agenda, the very real possibility that Scotland, which barely voted against independence from Great Britain in a September 2015 referendum, would soon vote in favor of secession.  Added to this, the Conservatives, hoping to placate the right wing of their party and fend off the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP, a nativist, anti-immigration party led by the enigmatic Nigel Farage), promised to hold a referendum before 2017, allowing the people of Great Britain to vote on whether to stay in or bolt from the European Union. Some see this merely as a bargaining tool to give leverage to Prime Minister David Cameron as he “renegotiates” the terms of British involvement in the EU, yet if those talks fail, the momentum for leaving the EU might be irresistible. 

According to John Makey, Senior Faculty at the Foundation for International Education in London, Cameron has made a major blunder by erring in issuing veiled threats as well as in the execution of his gambit.  “Most EU leaders,” said Makey, “can see that the signal to the world at large would be disastrous if there was a Brexit, but privately they must surely resent Cameron’s crude behavior.”

If one adds to the disappearing Scotland and the possible bugging out from the EU, a third ingredient, the Conservative government’s near-religious commitment to budgetary austerity and tax cutting, and you have created the perfect storm for the decline, even the disappearance of the United Kingdom as a major player on the international scene.

A significant element of austerity to the Brits, is to cut the defense budget, shrinking the already small military footprint of the U.K.  Added to this, austerity will bring with it a certain amount of collateral damage: the decline of BBC, a reduced diplomatic role for the U.K. (it used to be said that the British “punched above its weight” in foreign affairs), and fewer resources with which to project power.

Of course, to many in England, there is something admirable in the “go it alone” and “damn the global community” attitude on the rise in the U.K.  Regarding Europe, there is a very real sense in which Britain sees itself as different, special, with a similar attitude that U.S. officials tote when they talk about “American Exceptionalism.” But just as the U.S. has been made painfully aware of the down side of its own exceptionalism (hubris, arrogance, an over-inflated sense of what one nation can accomplish in a complex world), so too may Britain’s inflated sense of self and self-imposed isolation, while providing a bit of “feel good” self-congratulation, would in the long run damage Great Britain’s efforts at collective security as well as economic growth. This is also not to mention being absent from the room when the European community attempts to develop collective responses to common problems. 

The promise of a truly united Europe, if it is to become more than merely a dream, must be more fully accepted as well as institutionalized by the member states. And yet British intransigency, among other obstacles, may threaten a united European Union and splinter nations into self-interested states, willing to face the future as independent not united nations.

The “what if” possibilities in this are striking and could have significant consequences. If Scotland votes for independence, Great Britain votes to pull out of the European Union, and England goes on a downsizing spree, almost overnight, Great Britain would be smaller, weaker, and less significant as a player on the regional and international scene. It would become less powerful, less important, and less reliable as an ally to the United States, less influential in the European community, and less capable of asserting influence in matters of importance to the U.K. 

Plus, this would be a sign of the United Kingdom’s willing retreat from global involvement. Taken separately, any of these “what ifs” would be have great consequences. Taken together, however, whether by design or accident, they mark the transition from international player to international bystander.

Many in Britain are asking if this is a necessary retrenchment, a facing squarely of a hard reality, or a deliberate strategic choice by the Cameron government. Awkward accidental or deliberate downsizing, the next several years could reshape Britain, its self-image, and its role in the world. While it is tempting to read too much into this, perhaps the more profound question is: Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for “Europe” broadly speaking or is Great Britain an isolated case of the final nail being pounded into the coffin of a fading empire? If a sign of a larger problem, Britain’s parting ways from Europe may be one of the leading indicators of dissolution, but if Great Britain self-selects as an individual outlier, damage would be done to the EU, but even greater damage would be done by the British to themselves.

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Michael A. Genovese is author of over forty books, holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership, and is President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

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