LONDON – The victory of the Conservative Party in British elections last week has brought two possibilities closer to fulfillment: withdrawal from the European Union, and, more drastically, the secession of Scotland.
Buoyed by his unexpected triumph, Prime Minister David Cameron may well find himself presiding over the final disintegration of post-imperial Britain. Seventy years after the end of World War II, when an exhausted Britain began to give up its far-flung possessions, the country confronts its grimmest post-imperial fate: division, isolation and irrelevance.
This is hardly the fault of the Conservative, or the Labour party. Analysts have been quick to credit English nationalism, stoked by the Tories after the Scottish referendum last year, for Cameron’s victory. In actuality, angry English reactions to meddling European Union bureaucrats have been gathering political momentum at least since the 1990s.
And the unraveling of British identity has even deeper roots. During those centuries when the sun never set on the British Empire, the broad category of “British” subsumed other ideas of national belonging. “Little Englandism” came to be scorned because it didn’t comport with Britain’s ambitions and achievements in the larger world.
But “Britishness” was bound to reveal its artificial nature once Britain lost its empire, a global venture in which the Scots were keen partners. Scotland and Wales were destined to advance their political aspirations once the imperial program of collective expansion came to a halt.
In his recent book “Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British,” Jeremy Paxman, the distinguished BBC broadcaster, laments that Great Britain today suffers from “a vanishing sense of national purpose.” Paxman, a self-proclaimed “one-nation Tory,” is wary of Little Englandism. But many signs have pointed to its eventual triumph, such as nostalgia for the imperial past.
For outsiders in England, no spectacle of cultural and political life is more arresting than the periodic attempts to shore up a disintegrating sense of identity: from James Bond channeling his inventor’s casual xenophobia (“All foreigners are pestilential,” Ian Fleming claimed), to periodic Raj-revival movies and television dramas (“Jewel in the Crown,” “Indian Summer”), to attempts during the run-up to the Iraq war by Britain’s politicians, historians and journalists to play wise counselors to the Beltway’s neo-imperialists.
Long-term historical processes, however, have their own momentum; actors or intellectuals in period costume cannot reverse them.
As Britain slowly contracts into England, just one nation among many, the historical ironies accumulate. Britain’s unique success as an industrialized nation-state prompted strong imitative endeavors not only across Europe but also in Asia. Now many peoples, who were once humiliated into a sense of nationality by British rule, loom larger than their former masters.
In “A Passage to India,”E.M. Forster wrote of India’s claims to nationhood: “What an apotheosis! Last comer to the drab nineteenth-century sisterhood! Waddling in at this hour of the world to take her seat! She, whose only peer was the Holy Roman Empire, she shall rank with Guatemala and Belgium perhaps!”
For at least half a century Forster’s mordant words have applied more aptly to Britain, whose only precedent once was the Roman Empire.
The so-called “special relationship” with the United States, which gave Britain an oversized presence in the world and advantage over France and Germany, is increasingly confined to murky counter-terrorism and surveillance operations. Barack Obama seems coolly indifferent to it. Britain under a Conservative government has never been more eager for Chinese attention, as manifested by its rush to join China’s alternative to the IMF and the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
For the Tories, refusing to meet the Dalai Lama, or incurring American displeasure over their opportunistic Sinophilia, are small prices to pay in the attempt to keep Britain economically afloat. The Conservatives also seem reconciled to Britain’s geopolitical insignificance.
Those who grew up in a more confident country will continue to deplore the widespread feeling that, as Paxman writes, “because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again.” But the national shrinking triggered by loss of empire is unavoidable, and can only further reshape Britain’s domestic politics as well as international posture.
Post-imperial Britain did have a chance to secure some significance for itself within the European Union. But that moment has also gone. In another ironical twist of history, it is Britain’s former rival Germany that is now Europe’s preeminent country. The commemorations of British valor during VE Day last week disguised the melancholy reality that a German chancellor now has the power to set the terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
In the months to come, the populist Euro-skeptics within the Tory party, memorably described as “bastards” by former Prime Minister John Major, may be counted upon to deepen England’s isolation from Scotland and Europe. Certainly, it will be increasingly hard to avoid the clear message from the elections last week: Little Englandism has finally gone big.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.