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"Is Britain in danger of slipping further on the world stage due to self-inflicted woes?"
Over seven decades ago, a twenty-five-year lady ascended the British throne. All the Empire's splendour adorned the moment, the streets filled with cheering as the music of mass bands echoed across London.
At the time, the country still had the remnants of a large global footprint with military forces to back it up. But, none of this hid the fact that Britain was broke and in debt to the new superpower, the U.S.
The war debt the U.K. owed America was finally paid off in 2006 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls handed over US$83M.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accompanying reflection that appraise her reign bring these issues into sharp focus. Is Britain in danger of slipping further on the world stage due to self-inflicted woes?
Without a doubt, Britain's influence as a world power waned during Elizabeth II's tenure. This process was brought forth by the privations of World War II, the forfeiture of the Empire, and, more recently, accelerated by Brexit.
You may not like or agree with these opinions, and while I take no pleasure in expressing them, I hold them true. I claim no unique insight, except the benefit of distance allows me to see the downward evolution more clearly than those who witness it daily. Trips home bring the changes into clear view.
Also, I may add that ignoring what is happening serves no purpose.
For starters, no matter how you cut it, Brexit didn't bring the benefits claimed and may herald the break up of the 'united kingdom.' The separation from the E.U. has dragged down the economy in unexpected ways, with further impacts in the decade ahead. Even musicians now struggle to get gigs across the water, faced with a raft of regulations that previously didn't apply.
Meanwhile, Britain hanging on the coattails of the U.S. is not a long-term strategic option. The so-called 'special relationship' was always one-sided because the pragmatic U.S. saw a benefit. Access to military bases — George Orwell's Airstrip One — and Britain's support on the diplomatic front.
But when disagreements arose between the partners, the U.S. position prevailed. The latest example is the Northern Ireland border, Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. Plus, changing demographics in the U.S. means the natural support base for the Anglo-Saxon brothers is reducing.
People from South America, Asia and other places with less kinship with the old country will soon dominate the U.S. political scene. This gradual change will impact policy. The U.K. had a taste of this under Obama; he was less enthusiastic about the 'special relationship' except when it helped him. So the long goodbye from the U.S. will continue.
So, that often cited U.S. trade deal, which the Brexiteers waved around to tempt voters, isn't happening. Likewise, the other major trading block, the E.U., has unresolved issues with Britain.
Looking further afield, the rising powers China and India view the U.K. through the lens of the colonial era. In India, that's a mixed bag, a bipolar lingering affection and resentment.
For an emerging China, trade is the focus, with a caveat — don't attach strings dictating how we run our internal affairs. Any attempts to tie trade to human rights will be a stumbling block. Unfortunately, Beijing now views the U.K. as part of an alliance that seeks to hold back the Chinese nation. Banning Huawei from 5G bids in the face of U.S. pressure and other barriers illustrates the point.
Dispatching HMS Queen Elizabeth to sail up and down the Chinese coast on her first world tour in 2021 played right into China's hand. "Here are the British again using gunboats to threaten us," proved an easy sell internally and to other nations in the global south.
It's worth remembering that within living memory in 1926, British gunboats sailed up the Yangtze River to bombard the city of Wanzhou during a trade dispute. Reports tell of thousands of Chinese killed, including many civilians. These things are not forgotten.
So, while China may do deals, these will be on its terms. And as China will dominate the world economy, Britain can ill-afford to ignore this market. That's going to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Within Britain, poor governance, hubris and a stark lack of honesty have added to the nation's troubles. For example, I've documented the shocking state of policing and the lack of realistic planning for energy needs. These examples are emblematic.
Covid and Brexit combined have done significant damage to the British economy. Putin's war in Ukraine isn't helping matters, although attempts to blame all the U.K.'s energy problems on him are dishonest. A decades-long lack of foresight, planning and investment laid the genesis of that bind.
Then look at the 'balance of payments' issue; Britain is running an unsustainable record high deficit. That's why the pound is collapsing. Hence, prices will continue to rise and the options to address this are narrowing.
Peter Hitchens, in 'The Abolition of Britain', lays out the decades-long cultural processes at work. The erosion of the family unit, the undermining of institutions and the decline in values. He notes that well-meaning but dictatorial social engineers seized the institutions to push ugly and ill-conceived ideas.
In fairness, and not to be too bleak, the situation is recoverable if pragmatism prevails. Britain retains many of the best universities, with research capabilities second to none. Moreover, Britain's art and cultural output lead the world, providing soft power leverage beyond measure. Yet, Britain could squander these strengths with adherence to woke dogmas.
It is suitable to also speak about the virtues of the British political scene, which has demonstrated resilience despite its evident weaknesses. We've seen a smooth and peaceful power transfer under the constitutional monarchy framework. Few places can achieve this.
As is often stated, there is something 'inherently ridiculous about the monarchy.' But, then again, look around the world at the many of the most resilient societies — they have a constitutional monarchy. So it appears there is some utility in having such a head of state.
Yet the system's shortcomings in tackling long-term issues are now plain to see. Voters are not prepared to agree on policies that hurt them for the benefit of their grandchildren.
Also, never underestimate the role of geography, which confers advantages. For example, the country remains protected by its seas borders. This natural barrier kept armies at bay, helping reinforce stability. And yet Britain's location places it well to trade with the world, while the climate is mild although the weather is variable.
And what of the immediate future? In her utterances, Truss, the new Prime Minister, doesn't hold much hope. At times her optimism cannot mask harsh realities. She asserts that a 'Global Britain' must stride the world; then attacks France before expressing general disdain for Europe. Gathering pace, she seeks to vilify China and is reportedly lukewarm on the U.S.
She's in danger of isolating Britain from all the significant economies even before the trade talks start. Other clouds darken the horizon to threaten disaster. First, Scotland may go, followed by Northern Ireland, at which point the game is up.
What to do? Britain's leaders need the cold eye of pragmatic realism because many of the choices they face are harsh.
Simply put, it can't continue to fund limping aircraft carriers while pensioners freeze. It can't claim to uphold human rights elsewhere when people at home need food banks. It can't assert to have a world-class health service when stroke patients can't get an ambulance and wait four hours for medical care. The list goes on.
Nor will revisiting past glories, as the nation indulges in hubris, keep the lights on. Sure, celebrate a proud history without letting a misty-eyed view distort the truth.
Future historians may be puzzled that Britain didn't recognise that the track of history changed direction in the early twenty-first century. The era of Western domination is coming to an end. Whether a world emerges dominated by China, India, or a multipolar order takes hold, remains debatable.
Nevertheless, Britain certainly needs to raise its sights to exploit the natural advantages of history and geography.
As King Charles III takes the throne, after the longest apprenticeship in history, I'd argue that the monarchy has a role in redefining Britain. Forget the talk of abolition. The institutions of the state, the majesty of royalty, have all reinforced themselves in recent days; maybe a tad battered, but by no means down. There is no appetite for revolution.
If nothing else, Charles III's mother proved an anchor in troubled times, a rallying point — without the blemish of politics. He must show the same qualities because a chill wind is blowing.
Winter is coming.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.