By ET Editor: Historically, empires have been powerful political entities that mostly emerged through conquest, alliances, and expansion. Aside from many of the negatives usually associated with building an empire – they can bring wealth, power and stability to the regions they control, but they are not immune to decline and collapse. Empires typically decline due to a combination of internal and external factors that weaken their political, economic, and social foundations. Britain is on a concerning trajectory, but what can be done about it?
Many historians would agree that even state failure comes about for the same reasons – because internal factors such as corruption, inequality, and social unrest undermine political and therefore national stability. There are many well-documented cases of when the ruling elite became more interested in personal gain than the well-being of their citizens and country. They can alienate the populace and erode the legitimacy of the government, which can lead to widespread corruption and the loss of trust in state institutions.
The United Kingdom is now experiencing political, economic and social instability. The decline of its empire from the World Wars are still embedded in the memories of an ageing nation. The bank-led financial crisis accelerated a crisis of daily life for much of the country – and it still does, more than a decade later. The political elite of the day (Cameron/Osborne) made policy decisions based on an economic class war more than sound economic policies in the national interest. This led to political opportunists seizing the embers of growing unrest – largely by victim-blaming immigrants. The result was Brexit. Leaving the EU without an economic framework has been very damaging, which has caused considerable political and economic instability.
Economic problems heavily contribute to the decline of an empire or a country. When an empire becomes overextended, it can struggle to manage its resources and maintain its infrastructure. This can lead to a decline in productivity and economic growth, which can weaken the empire’s ability to maintain its power and influence. Similar tensions, that of the decline of productivity, power and influence, are causing even more instability in Britain today. Trapped in a downward spiral, the way out – is very problematic.
Then there are external factors such as war, which can also be major contributors to an empire’s decline. When an empire becomes embroiled in costly wars, it can deplete its resources and weaken its military and political capabilities. If the empire is unable to defend itself against external threats, it can become vulnerable to invasion and conquest. Likewise for modern-day Britain, the war in Ukraine is weakening its financial strength and ability to defend itself from cyber warfare and the online tactics that continue to destabilise the social structures that upheld civil society. But there are other problems too. An ageing population, who become inactive and costly is a serious problem that politicians continue to steer away from.
One example of an empire that declined due to internal factors is the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, the Roman Empire was plagued by corruption, economic instability, and social unrest. The ruling elite became more interested in personal gain than the well-being of their citizens, and the empire struggled to maintain its military might. The barbarian invasions of the 5th century were the final blow to the Roman Empire, which fell in 476 AD.
Once again, we can see a reflection of Britain’s fall. Political corruption is now widespread. Public anger is now being matched by lawmakers who outlaw public protest and give police new powers of arrest.
Conservative politicians have been on the offensive for some years now. For instance, Boris Johnson’s term in office has been notable for its repeated abuses of power. From the illegal proroguing of parliament to constraining the court and substantially increasing the dominance of the government over all other branches of the state – notably parliament itself. Then there is the sheer scale of corruption – not seen in the UK for at least a hundred years. More recently, we have seen how the government is now silencing its critics – not with legislation, but threats. These are the signs of political failure. It almost automatically leads to economic failure.
As Gina Miller put it six months ago – “The fundamental doctrine of the separation of powers – which requires that the principal institutions of state, the executive, legislature and judiciary should be clearly divided in order to safeguard citizens’ liberties and guard against tyranny – is being systematically destroyed by this government.”
The point here is that most people are not aware that ministers have given themselves very broad powers. They have done this under the guise of Brexit and detaching the UK from Europe without ever explaining that ministers now have the ability to alter primary legislation without requiring parliament to vote in favour.
In the meantime, the government of the day continues to fail to deal with Britain’s real problems. It’s almost a Ying and Yang thing. We have some great advances in general healthcare, which mean that far fewer people die as a result of the big killer diseases, but this inevitably means many more of us will live for a long time but with complicated and expensive ailments. Because of mass surveillance – there is less violent crime, but there is a lot more fraud. There are amazing technological opportunities and social challenges offered to us by artificial intelligence, just as the internet becoming widely available demonstrated. And yet, when you look at these opportunities and threats – what is our direction in Britain – to follow everyone else’s lead?
Does anyone really believe that the likes of Boris Johnson, Jacob-Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, James Cleverly, or Jeremy Hunt has what it takes to radically change Britain’s direction – when the only thing they put their energy to is clinging onto their imploding power structure? No, me neither. Does anyone really believe that Brexit will enhance our chances? If anything, Brexit will be a drag on our ability just to keep up.
We could start by taking education and public health out of the hands of politicians. Without a healthy, educated workforce, the inevitability of decline is guaranteed. Give both a percentage of GDP, a 100-person non-partisan expertise panel with a 25-year horizon to achieve world-class status and let growth be the target of short-termist politicians. Why not – this is largely what happens with military funding. Top-down re-organisations driven by political ideology and the need to show they doing something has failed this country for decades. And now look where we are on both.
There’s a reality about Britain. Think forward to 2050. It’s barely 27 years away. The world will be dramatically different in so many ways. Where do you imagine Britain will be in this rapidly changing world? World-leading or following the innovators? A net importer or net exporter? Will Downing Street and our nation be geopolitically influential or just a declining mid-sized, over-burdened, badly managed country?
Right now – it’s very hard to imagine Britain will be the envy of many at all in 2050.
In fact, by 2050, the UN predicts that half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth). Notice something? Yes – the USA. Due to the number of migrants arriving over the decades, the USA is actually predicted to grow while China’s population goes into freefall. No other Western country is predicted to keep its GDP, wealth and prosperity on track like America will.
India’s population overtakes China’s in June this year. It has just overtaken the UK in terms of GDP. France is expected to overtake Britain by the end of the year. Where is this trajectory taking us?
Since WW2, Britain’s economic performance, power and influence have been declining. It is the way of empires. Not one has ever survived. But some do re-emerge – just look at China. Look at the devastation of Germany just 70 years ago – how they rebuilt, reunified and where it is now.
You can argue these small points, but the reality is – what do you really think Britain will look like when its downward trajectory, (perhaps arrested in the 90s and noughties, but very much back on the slide again) – continues all the way to 2050? Right now, Britain has stalled, while others are climbing. We are being left behind. But, with the right investment – at least we should be able to keep up!
Britain does not have a resource that everyone else wants. It doesn’t have a particularly large military force (25th by size of military personnel) or technical advantage over all others. Keeping up will be challenging enough, and that is about as much as Britain can achieve.