Political attitudes – Declinism is booming in Britain | Britain
THE VIEW from white cliffs of Dover has little changed in decades: a grey sea, gulls overhead and the coast of France on the horizon. On January 1st that bracing vista became a Rorschach test for Brexit. A Leave voter may have seen an ocean of opportunity, and a new dawn for Britain. A Remainer might have wistfully seen an island cut adrift, and the sunset of British influence.
Declinism is rampant in Britain. Some 65% of Britons think the country is “in decline”, according to a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI for The Economist, while 57% think today’s youth will have a worse life than their parents. But gloom is unevenly distributed. Remainers are more likely to think Britain is in decline than Leavers, by 76% to 54%. Labour voters are far more declinist than Tories.
Declinism, the gnawing belief in Britain’s economic and strategic eclipse, was the most powerful idea of post-war politics. The task of escaping it consumed left and right in turn. It powered Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” in the 1960s, and Margaret Thatcher’s free-market revolution in the 80s. Correlli Barnett, a military historian who influenced Thatcher, thought the problem was that the elite went soft in the 19th century. Anthony Sampson, an anatomist of Britain, blamed Britain’s rule by public-school bluffers instead of scientifically minded technocrats. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s now-departed chief adviser, took much the same view 50 years later.
Declinism drove Britain into Europe, as it watched the rapid recoveries of Italy, France and Germany with nervous envy. The continent meant modernity, “La Dolce Vita” and the Citroën DS; Britons had “Carry on Camping” and the Vauxhall Victor. Outside the European Economic Community, Britain would be a “greater Sweden”, isolated and irrelevant, said Con O’Neill, Britain’s negotiator.
Declinism drove Britain out again. Brexiteers saw Europe as a cosy retirement home for geriatric economies; Britain needed to throw the blanket from its knees and go dancing. Now, the pro-Europeans are declinists again. They have good reason for gloom. Brexit cuts Britain’s long-term growth potential, reduces its influence in Brussels and Washington, and strains the bonds of the United Kingdom. Leaving Erasmus, the student exchange programme, is an act of self-inflicted drabness. “Which is the more likely, I’m asking myself: that we lose Scotland, or that we rejoin before we’ve lost Scotland?” says Michael Heseltine, a former Tory deputy prime minister, who thinks Brexit is a disaster.
Mr Johnson is popular because he is an anti-declinist. “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts,” he declared on the steps of Downing Street after taking office, which he won on a promise to end the humiliating Brexit impasse. The history of modern Britain, he later said, is of defying those who think that “our time as a nation has passed, that we should be content with mediocrity and managed decline”. For those expecting a British comeback, this year may provide plenty to cheer. Britain could be the first big country to vaccinate all at serious risk from covid-19. Lifting restrictions should give the economy a boost. Mr Johnson will host the G7 meeting later this year and the COP26 climate summit in November, offering him the chance to declare that Britain remains at the top table.
But declinism is not just a harmless national pastime, played by different people depending on who is in power. It distorts the way a country sees itself. Since Britain’s status is bound to slip in a world in which poor countries are getting richer, efforts to buck declinism are inevitably followed by disappointment. Britain appeared to be falling behind in the 1960s because the rest of Europe was catching up. And it is dangerous, too, for it encourages the impulsive behaviour of a man fleeing a ghost in a horror movie. That leads to bad decisions—such as, for instance, leaving the EU.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “That sinking feeling”