Great Britain Is Not in Decline

Earlier this summer, in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian elections, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, lambasted what he called the "hungry wolves in ambush" who sought to profit from the unrest on the streets of Iran by undermining the Islamic republic. "The most evil of them," he added, "is the British government." It made a nice change to see someone declare Britain, not the United States, public enemy No. 1. It was just like old times.

Actually, the ayatollah's paranoia told its own story. For all the talk of post-imperial malaise, most British people are quite comfortable with the role their nation has carved for itself: a small country that still—for reasons of history, culture, and inclination—punches well above its weight in international affairs.

Now Stryker Maguire tells us in NEWSWEEK that it's all over. Finished. Britain is, once more, a place wracked by economic recession, spiraling unemployment, a mountain of debt, and, above all, a gloomy pessimism about the future. Things haven't much improved since Tony Blair's government arrived on the promise that, in the words of a pop song, "things can only get better." In fact, we're told, they've got worse. Every day, the newspapers publish a fresh catalog of woe designed to convince you that Britain has become the worst-run nation on earth.

It's a juicy narrative—Britain's decline and fall. And it fits the national character more comfortably than the unseemly boosterism of the late 1990s. (A 1996 NEWSWEEK cover called "London Rules," for example, claimed that the British capital was now the coolest, most interesting city on earth. Vanity Fair piled on, proposing that the era of "cool Britannia" had arrived. London's booming financial center, and its thriving fashion and art scenes—plus the energy brought by a new wave of immigrants—all helped foster the impression that Britain was swinging in ways it hadn't since the 1960s. Most miraculously of all, a culinary revolution meant you could even eat well in Britain.) But if the good times were never as good as the advocates promised, nor are the bad times quite so dire as they may seem right now.

True, mismanagement of the economy has left the next government with the unenviable task of reforming public services while also fixing Britain's parlous fiscal situation. Debt currently stands at 56 percent of GDP and Standard & Poor's recently warned that the country's credit rating could be downgraded. But London is not Reykjavík-on-Thames. Nor is it likely to be overtaken as a global financial center by any of its European rivals, all of which are also suffering.

Militarily, the British Army may be underequipped and overstretched in Afghanistan, where a chronic shortage of helicopters has rightly embarrassed the government. But work has already begun on the two largest non-American aircraft carriers in the world—and there are growing calls for the Army to be expanded, not cut further, if Britain's existing international obligations are going to be met. The public frets about the war in Afghanistan but, if anything, Britain's armed forces are held in higher regard now than at any time since the Falklands war. According to polls, nearly 60 percent of voters would pay more taxes to fund increased defense spending, while more than 90 percent believe the armed forces should be proud of the job they do.

All governments end their time in office exhausted and in disgrace. The Labour Party has ruled for 12 years and, like its Tory predecessor, is trying the public's patience as it limps toward next year's election. That helps explain the fractious public mood, too. If the country isn't as enthusiastic about David Cameron's Conservatives as, the polls tell us, it was when Tony Blair rose to power, it's because we've learned that a fresh batch of politicians can't reinvent the wheel. In that sense, we've grown to be more realistic, and that's only to the good.

Nostalgia is a national weakness and Britons often hanker after the quiet certainties of a supposedly golden past. But the malcontents forget that we've seen much worse. In 1963 Arthur Koestler edited a special edition of Encounter bearing the snappy cover line "Suicide of a Nation? An Inquiry Into the State of Britain Today." The issue was predicated on the belief that "Britain is in the course of a crisis which, if it is not overcome within the not very distant future, will lead to her permanent decline." Worse was to come.

The 1970s became a decade to forget—or, rather, to remember with horror—as Britain became known as the "sick man of Europe." Nothing worked. Power cuts were common, millions of workdays per year were lost to strikes, and the economic crisis at one point necessitated a three-day working week. Humiliatingly, the IMF had to bail Britain out.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland saw the bloodiest years of the Troubles, Scotland agitated unhappily for more powers, and English cities were the frequent targets of IRA terrorism. The decade culminated in the "winter of discontent" in 1978–79, during which, for a time, rubbish went uncollected and, in Liverpool, even the gravediggers went on strike. Nor did the early Thatcher years bring much relief: unemployment soared to 3 million and race riots set cities across the country ablaze.

Things aren't nearly so bleak today. The rise of India and China demands change in the international order. But that doesn't mean that British "decline" is anything other than relative. The truth is that despite the national predilection for grumbling, Britons lead longer, more comfortable, better lives than did any of their ancestors. And even still, the long arm of British soft power reached deep into Tehran (where BBC Persia told Iranians why the election might have been bogus) and stuck a needle in Khamenei's eye.

Britannia may not be the power she was. But Britain retains a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, remains the United States' most formidable and reliable ally, and, even in recession, is the sixth largest economy in the world. If this is terminal decline, then it's the kind of decline other countries can only aspire to.

Alex Massie Blogs At The Spectator.