Britain’s relative decline, diplomatically and economically, began as long ago as the third quarter of the nineteenth century; when she embarked on her policy of ‘imperialism’ in a desperate effort to reverse it. I realise this isn’t a conventional way of looking at it, certainly not Boris Johnson’s, for example; but I realise now that it’s been a theme running through all the books I’ve published on British imperial history, from 1968 to the present day.
The final stage of this decline – our ‘fall’, if you like – began with Margaret Thatcher, and is being presided over now by Theresa May; which must be a disappointment to those who felt that a female hand on the political tiller would undo all the harm that male leaders had done hitherto. Of course they’ll deny it in the case of Thatcher, whose whole purpose in life was to seek to arrest Britain’s decline by reasserting what she claimed were ‘Victorian values’, but in a way that in reality made her country the plaything of outside forces (in shorthand: ‘global capitalism’) which its governments could no longer control.
It’s a great shame, especially for the feminists among us, that these two women should have been so prominent in engineering Britain’s decline. Of course it wasn’t their fault really, but of the forces that were manipulating them, and the prime ministers that came between them; and was unlikely to have been due to their gender, which in both cases was hardly conventionally ‘feminine’ in any case. I still regret, hugely, that our first female prime minister couldn’t have been Labour’s Barbara Castle: a real female force for good (hopefully), in the mould of Boudicca. But we were landed with Maggie and T’resa; leaving it for another woman in the future to show what a girl can really do. Can anyone see her looming on the horizon? Emily? Andrea? Even the much abused Diane?….
Imperial expansion was also ironically a kind of ‘closing in’ of the mother country and the colonies for some preferably behind tariff walls to keep the others out, and to hide relative economic decline. Brexit has also been about asserting English ‘control’ again at a time of relative economic decline and growing inequality, this time over the UK, that blessed union that Mrs May cares so much, But Brexit could hasten the break-up of the UK, and without access to the EU single market Brexiteers would soon discover the modern world is a harsher place than in 1880, with tariff walls and trade blocs everywhere.
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