In 1969 Julian Amery, Member of the UK Parliament, published the final of a six volume study on Joseph Chamberlain and his tariff reform campaign. The campaign which began in the late 19th century and was carried on through the first half of the 20th century by Julian’s father Leopold Amery, was derived from a fear of the loss of global British power. Chamberlain and his supporters sensed the coming end of the halcyon days of Pax Britannia even as Britain’s theoretical control of the world reached its zenith, at least according to the lines on the map.
In spite of feeble attempts to enact Empire wide tariffs in the early 1930s, making the British Empire a kind of united, self-sufficient single market, the plan ultimately failed. By the 1960s, many were beginning to see Britain’s future as part of the European Economic Community rather than the Commonwealth.
In closing his study of Chamberlain, Julian Amery suggested that the proper way to take tariff reform into the latter half of the 20th century was for Britain to create a single market comprised of both the Commonwealth and the EEC. Yet this proved untenable as history proved that Europe would ultimately take precedent for Britain over the Commonwealth.
When in 1975, the Labour government of Harold Wilson held a referendum on Britain’s membership to the then EEC (which would become the EU after 1992), the debate remained highly philosophical. Those wanting out said ‘out of Europe and into the world’.
They spoke of reconnecting with the Commonwealth whilst still retaining good economic ties to Europe as a member of the European Free Trade Association. On the other side, Europeanists said ‘you’ve got to get in to get on’, implying that by remaining in a wider European family, Britain would have a kind of post-Imperial renaissance.
In 1975, Britain voted to remain in Europe, but this year Britain voted for Brexit. Yet the Brexit of 2016 was quite different than the proposed Brexit of 1975. In 2016, big ideas never really entered the debate.
There was nothing but vague lip service about Britain’s wider role in the world or her relationship to other supposedly brotherly nations. It really came down to a debate on whether managed decline was better from within or without and the people chose without.
The British Empire on which the sun never set has been long reduced to one and a half islands on which the sun has permanently set. America’s sun is setting and doing so at a rapid rate which is why the theme of the forthcoming US election ought to be one of managed decline versus a protracted and painful death.
When Donald Trump says ‘make America great again’, what he really means is ‘make Americans feel good again’. In this sense Trump is very astute in conspicuously associating himself with Brexit. Brexit was not about making Britain a great empire again, it was about the fact that having foreign institutions manage Britain’s post-great status was an embarrassment to people who have long conceded defeat to history in terms of being a world power, yet still wanted a chance to ‘do it my way’.
Today’s Britain is defined by a City of London where the few can get wealthy, a Greater London where a few more can invest in property and luxury goods and a wider country where people have the right to cling on to a sense of identity which helps them feel at ease with collective historical decline.
A pint of ale, an old Jaguar, the monarchy, green and pleasant landscapes and red phone boxes which no one uses, all help Britain feel like she at least controls her own limited destiny. Brexit was a referendum on this feeling as much as it was a vote against the establishment.
Likewise, America is only a few decades behind in her decline. People in America have grown tired of ruling the world. If Ronald Reagan ran against Donald Trump in 2016, Trump would win easily.
Trump is calling for America’s exit from being a global super-power and wants to become something of a geographically vaster, post-Imperial Britain. Without being able to necessarily articulate the gestalt in this way, most Americans want the same.
By referring to the ‘good old days’, Trump assures that Americans will still be able to take pleasure and pride in their own sense of identity whether it be New York playboys, western cowboys, Hollywood glamour and southern riflemen.
Nigel Farage’s pint of bitter is Donald Trump’s baseball cap. Both are symbols implying that decline can be comforting and familiar rather than painful and revolutionary.
Julian Amery’s big ideas, whether they were right or wrong are gone; so too are those of Reagan and Goldwater. Declining powers do not require big ideas, they require effective and sensitive management along with reassuring cultural symbolism. Whilst Trump offers this, Hillary Clinton, far from peddling big ideas, is the last manic gasp of failed ideas.
T. S. Eliot said that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. With Hillary Clinton there would be a bang before the whimper. But then there was something Eliot left out.
Institutions and countries, like the world itself could go out with a dignified smile. One is reminded that a dying dog does not often show its pain to its masters in its final moments. Instead it quietly walks away to die in dignity without embarrassment. In this sense, Trump and Farage may present an elegant solution to a protracted problem. Time will tell and history will judge.