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Declined and Fallen

Peter asks a few questions about national decline and, most, uh, flatteringly, asks the Brits to comment. It’s an enormous topic, but here are some quick thoughts…

Query: Does overall national output, the figure in which China will soon overtake us, or GDP per person, in which the United States will sustain an indefinite lead, matter more to national standing and morale?

Answer: Switzerland or China? That’s easy. Despite the protestations of the natalists and/or the pro-mass immigration crowd, per capita is what counts, but with one caveat: If part of a nation’s self-image is as a great (or the greatest) power it has to have enough collective wealth to be able to afford the armed forces that make that still a plausible claim.

Query: What, really, was the meaning of the Thatcher years? To what extent was she truly able to reverse British decline? In the end, was she able to restore a sense of national pride? If we could find a Thatcher of our own in 2016–Bobby Jindal? Marco Rubio?–what, realistically, could he hope to accomplish? Merely to retard our continuing decline?

Answer: She reversed—for a while—the idea that Britain had to accept a mediocre future at best, and she paved the way for the (uneven) economic revival that was so sadly squandered in the Blair/Brown years. What she did not understand too well, however, was the institutional structure of the nation. No student of Burke, she allowed some of the glue that held the country together to come unstuck to a dangerous degree. At the same time, she was far too complacent about the extent to which other institutions, from the bureaucracy, to the BBC, to large swaths of the education system, were either rotten or corrosive. Could the US reverse its own decline? There’s probably no country theoretically better placed to do so, but there is little evidence to suggest that the leader capable of setting that in motion has arrived on the scene.

Query: You grew up in an England that had become a minor power–a little England–but that remained, in important ways, wealthy and vibrant, at least for those who made their livings in finance and the few other sectors in which England remained competitive.

Answer: Actually, it had not become a minor power (that was what the left—and their fellow travelers on the right—used to claim). It was “still” (a crucial word in discussions on this topic) one of the largest economies in the world, and it “still” packed quite a punch. The problem was that, grand(ish) as it “still” was, the UK was a shadow of its former self. The knowledge of that fact, on top of the battering that the country’s self-esteem had received from a series of catastrophic blunders (World War One, perhaps above all) meant that much of its self-confidence had evaporated. And once that’s gone …

However large, relatively speaking, the economy “still” was, at the individual level it was not outside the ranks of a shrinking few, particularly “wealthy” (I am talking about the 1960s and 1970s, so maybe a little earlier than the time to which you are referring). Taxation was savage, the finance-driven bonanza was yet to be, and the prevailing feeling was that worse was yet to come, a fear that soured the political debate still further. When a country no longer believes that it can increase the size of the pie, the debate over how to divide it becomes very ugly, very quickly.

 And, yes, there are clear signs that that’s happening here.

There’s nothing genteel about decline.