Margaret Thatcher’s successor, Sir John Major, has declared that however well we perform over the next half century, we will never again be a first-rate power. He says that, economically, we will be overtaken by other powers with much larger populations.
I find it astonishing that a man who has sat at the very centre of power can reveal himself as being so astonishingly myopic. Despite his seven years in power, he failed utterly to pick up on what his country was really all about. His lack of historical perspective is also equally baffling.
Size of economy and population do not in themselves confer on you front-rank power. Very soon, India’s economy will overtake our own and its population overtake China’s. Is anybody saying India becomes more significant than us at that point?
Let me list a few of the reasons why I believe Britain will remain a force to be reckoned with and very much a front-rank power. We are the founder member of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, comprising ourselves, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That diaspora formed the cornerstone of the post-war world order and the multitude of organisations and affiliates operating under the auspices of the United Nations – itself a body created by its two leading members. So close and trusting of each other are these five countries that the Five Eyes, as they call themselves, share intelligence to the very highest level and admit no others to their closed order.
The common language these countries share has become so ubiquitous and necessary in the world of international diplomacy, science, medicine, business, the web and the arts that, without any agreement between the world’s 195 nations, it has become the world’s lingua franca.
Britain is the inventor of the modern world. It is a tolerant, law-driven, property-owning, democratic society in which the executive is answerable to the collective will of individuals who maintain a constant watch on what it gets up to through a free media. It remains an incredibly innovative country with a greater number of Nobel laureates relative to its population. It has schools the rich worldwide like to send their kids to and universities that rank among the world’s best.
Also, John Major takes no account of that great empire that formerly straddled the world which has morphed into a free association of nations – fifty-four of them – and forms today such a magnet that some countries which were never part of that empire want to join. That association – or club, as it often likes to refer to itself – seeks to promote democracy and decency among all its members and will reject any state who egregiously fails to meet its standards. In many ways it is like a mini United Nations – though not one which will tolerate tyrants – and it has a touching, almost family aspect to it. All the Commonwealth’s members positively love to meet up every two years and party with no interpreters in sight.
Despite the aberration of the Trump presidency – one quite survivable, as we see, in a democratic society – the United States remains the most dynamic society on earth. The country most admired and trusted by that state enjoys, by definition, a special status as well as an advantage. It has the ear of its best pal as no one else does. Note that, despite a serious difference with Boris Johnson over Brexit and disparaging words spoken earlier about the British prime minister, he was still the first leader Biden picked up the phone to after his confirmation as the president elect.
Then there is our physical proximity, cultural and historical links with the great power which will one day be the United States of Europe. These ties will not go away. We will always need and want each other. Great Britain was just not a proper fit for the EU’s aspirations. Quite apart from this, it would never want to upset us too much for fear that we would retaliate by using our newly repatriated powers to seek economic advantage.
I do believe that Britain has the most polished and effective diplomatic service in the world. This is enhanced by the world’s most respected broadcaster, the BBC. Its World Service is the most trusted of any and listened to avidly even by its enemies. Its documentaries, dramas and period pieces entrance millions.
All these assets come under the heading of Soft Power. It is the only power, realistically, which can deployed in the 21st century. Unlike tanks, planes and warships, it passes under the radar and makes you friends – not enemies. Hard Power is a wasting asset; it is hugely expensive and ruinous to maintain. The ever-increasing restraints of an ever increasingly activist UN make it almost impossible today to go to war without UN authorisation. The war against Saddam Hussein may well have been the last in which that could be done without a mandate.
As for nuclear weapons, the only thing that can be said about them is that they free you from fear of invasion, which is almost certainly why North Korea has impoverished itself to acquire them and their delivery system. Otherwise, they are unusable – so being armed to the teeth is truly a drag anchor. Dynamic as it is, imagine how much more the United States would be capable of were it not burdened with supporting its colossal military-industrial complex. That is the foolish road that authoritarian China is presently going down. While it is true that we ourselves are not free from displaying military muscle – we have submarines that can deliver a nuclear strike anywhere in the world and two aircraft carriers of immeasurable power – we do not let ourselves be carried away.
John Major downplays the country that allowed him, the son of a circus man, to rise to the top – as well as a grocer’s daughter. But among so many other questions, he needs to ask himself what is the attraction of our nation that desperate people will borrow thousands from people traffickers to come and live among us? What makes a man willing to die to reach our shores?
The fact is that we are seen a tolerant nation as well as a successful one. The quality of our judicial rulings brings litigation to London from all over the world. In theatre, drama and music, Britain turns in a matchless performance. Many consider London the coolest city in the world with the City of London the beating heart of an enormous chunk of global financial transactions.
Even the shenanigans of our Royal Family are a source of endless fascination for the entire planet. And when it comes to a state visit, a royal wedding or a funeral, who can put on a show to match one of ours? Brexit may have driven us mad, but the theatre of it all in the mother of parliaments – especially that of its outrageously partisan speaker, Bercow, who so loved the sound of his own voice – made for riveting viewing worldwide. The complexities of the arguments deployed made even the US electoral process look straightforward.
So wake up John Major! You haven’t been right about very much these recent years and you’re certainly not right about this.