The Specter of Decline

Britain is in No Position to Rule the Waves

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Americans are used to having arguments about whether the country has declined. Rasmussen Reports released a poll yesterday which says that only 30% of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction.

However, compared to some nations, America has arguably had it very easy. A depression near the start of the century was followed up by successful military intervention in Europe and Japan, and then an unprecedented era of economic expansion and increases in living standards.

In contrast, if you are a citizen of the UK, you might feel some longing for the former British Empire and feel distraught about the state of modern British society. Spectator magazine hosted a debate on whether Britain has declined under Queen Elizabeth II. The argument that Britain is a shadow of her former self is particularly striking:

But in relative terms, Britain has declined. When she came to the throne, the British car industry was the second largest in the world; now there is no major British-owned car company. In the land of the industrial revolution, foreign ownership and management is the sine qua non of industrial success. Though we invented the railway, others must build them for us; though we invented nuclear power, we cannot by our unaided efforts build a nuclear power station. Even in football, our clubs are foreign-owned and the players foreign. The British are too undisciplined to be good at what they are most (regrettably and childishly) interested in.


But it is in intangibles that the decline has been most marked. In 1952, Britain was among the best-ordered countries in the western world, and now it is the worst. The recent outbreak of mass criminality can have surprised only the wilfully blind. The British are now among the least self-disciplined people in the world: it is as though they had undergone a gestalt switch, so that what they previously decried they now honour, and vice versa. They are the fattest people in Europe: the characteristic smell of Britain is re-used fat. They treat the country as their personal rubbish tip — there is more litter here than anywhere else comparable — and they drink brutishly. They take more drugs than anyone else. They consume without discrimination and dress abominably because they have no self-respect or respect for others, an absence that is often evident in the way they work, no small matter in a service economy. They favour the uncouth over the refined and the stupid over the intelligent; their vulgarity, like their drunkenness, is not unselfconscious but militant. They mutilate rather than beautify themselves; they care for nothing except their odious entertainments, and their popular music is a paean to their hatred of life. They are individualistic without individualism. A consumer society without taste is a horrible thing to behold.

The counter-argument disagrees:

Nevertheless, I think a Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep after a trip to the Festival of Britain would be rather impressed if he awoke now. Industrial decline? Yes, if you study the badges on the cars or count the smoking chimneys. But that would be to fail to understand the modern economy. Monotonous procedures such as assembling cars have moved abroad, leaving British industry to concentrate on high-value, niche manufacturing that does not necessarily look so impressive but which keeps the world running. I didn’t even realise that I drive weekly past the headquarters of the world’s biggest producer of microprocessors. …

But inner-city gangs aside, males are a lot less pugilistic than they were in the 1950s, when fighting was a regular part of Saturday evening entertainment. Violence at football matches is no longer a huge problem; it was the middle years of Elizabeth II’s reign that was the era of hooliganism. In many ways we are more tolerant and more peaceful. Anyone fancy going back to the 1950s and being black or gay or a single mother, or indeed anything outside the narrow social norms of the community in which you live? For all the excesses of the European Court of Human Rights, we should be proud of our influence on the rest of the world.

It should noted that it is hard to completely agree with this take when there are reports which argue that England and Wales have a worse crime rate when compared to the United States.

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