End of Empire ( again)

No time like the silly season for one of those occasional landmark think pieces by an American about the place of the UK in the world. Styrker McGuire of Newsweek characterises Britain under Blair to have been “ the last gasp of Empire” and insists that the recession will make Britain less special. Well maybe, but who would have expected the boom time of the 90s and early noughties? “Greatness” is a subjective measure relying overmuch on military rather than financial clout. Looking back it was the Big Bang in the Thatcher era smashing the Old Boy’s club in the City that ushered in the good times. And before you start, all good times are imperfect and aren’t nirvana. We’re slating them now but I bet we’ll look back on them as a great success we’ll want to recover. Nostalgia though is an unpredictable business. McGuire rates Britain the decades after WW2 highly. You could have fooled me. This was an era of managing decline. Locally incidentally, the IRA fundamentally misread it as natural time for a Northern Ireland scuttle. McGuire writes that Britain lost an empire but omits the rest of Dean Acheson’s searing phrase – “and has yet to find a role” (see this Chris Patten lecture in 2005 which still holds good) It found one, in financial skills and in the familiar concentric rings of association, with Europe, America and the wider world. How Britain navigates towards which ring always seems like an upheaval but in essentials, the journey will remain broadly the same.

Even in the decades after it lost its empire, Britain strode the world like a pocket superpower. Its economic strength and cultural heft, its nuclear-backed military might, its extraordinary relationship with America — all these things helped this small island nation to punch well above its weight class.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London