Why Britain punched above its weight

What’s truly remarkable about Britain’s story is not its post-imperial ‘decline’ but the fact that it became a global superpower in the first place. David Reynolds explores for BBC History Magazine

A c1860 depiction of Wentworth Works steel manufacturer in Sheffield

Reversing Britain’s ‘decline’ has been the avowed aim of pro-Brexit politicians. But in their view, decline is mostly a problem of the mind. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in a speech on 27 March 2018, blamed the Suez debacle of 1956 for permanently undermining the nation’s self-confidence, so that “the establishment, the elite, decided its job was to manage decline” and try to “soften the blow of descending downwards”. That led, he said, to “the notion that it was Europe or bust”, but instead the result, he added, was Europe and bust. That’s why, insisted Rees-Mogg, Brexit was vital for national rejuvenation. The same line has been trumpeted by Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister. What’s needed is “optimism”, greater “self-confidence”, more of the “can-do spirit”. In short, a failure of will, not lack of power, has got us into this mess. But willpower can get us out of it.

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The debate about decline is not just a Brexit-era obsession. It is almost hardwired into any nation’s rise to international prominence, thanks to the haunting image of imperial Rome. The historian Edward Gibbon, at the end of his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788), called Rome’s collapse “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind”.

In the 1900s – facing the challenges of imperial overstretch and mindful of Gibbon’s narrative – Tory politician Joseph Chamberlain urged the consolidation of the empire as an economic bloc, in the hope of continuing “for generation after generation the strength, the power and the glory of the British race”. Winston Churchill, inveighing in the 1930s against the idea of granting self-government to India, blamed this on “a disease of the will”, asserting “we are victims of a nervous collapse, a morbid state of the mind”. And Margaret Thatcher, during her very first election campaign in 1950, affirmed her “earnest desire to make Great Britain great again”.

However, terms like ‘greatness’ and ‘decline’ need to be unpacked. Today the UK remains one of the wealthiest and most significant countries in the world. Although its place in global rankings is not comparable to the days of Victorian pre-eminence, that’s not surprising, and no amount of willpower could have made a difference. In fact, the fixation with ‘decline’ – seen as real or psychological – misses the essential historical point: what’s truly remarkable is the story of Britain’s ‘rise’.

Great Britain stood in the forefront of the great surges of European expansion that shaped the world between 1700 and 1900: commerce and conquest in the 18th century, industry and empire in the 19th. All these movements were intertwined with the lucrative Atlantic slave trade – half of all Africans carried into slavery during the 18th century were transported on British vessels – and the profits from that trade lubricated Britain’s commercial and industrial revolutions.

The country’s principal advantage was a relatively secure island base during what was still the age of seapower. Unlike rivals such as France and Prussia/Germany, which shared land borders with dangerous neighbours, Britain could shelter behind the English Channel – what Shakespeare called the country’s “moat defensive”.

Insularity did not guarantee immunity – in 1588, 1804 and 1940 invasion threats loomed – but it did free Britain from the necessity of a large standing army, the norm on the continent. The Royal Navy, however, was deemed essential, not just for defending the island but also because Britain was dependent on importing food and raw materials and needed to protect its seaborne commerce from peacetime privateers and wartime enemies.

Britain’s insular position left it well-placed to capitalise on a series of great wars against France. Whereas French leaders from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte had to fight their primary battles on land against continental foes, Britain was able to divert more of its resources to the struggle for global empire. The Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 left the British in control of most of North America and, although 13 colonies won their independence during the next world war of 1776–83, Britain held on to what became Canada and the British West Indies. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815, the British had to weather invasion threats and periods of economic isolation, but in the end they gained total victory.

With the destruction of French seapower, Britain’s fleet was now spread around the globe at key strategic points from Gibraltar to Singapore. It was also the world’s main colonial power – paramount in India but also well entrenched in Australasia and Africa. Indeed it was the ‘multiplier’ effect of empire that made Britain great. At the start of the 20th century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had only 42 million people, whereas the population of the USA was 76 million and of tsarist Russia 133  million. When the inhabitants of Britain’s overseas territories were included, however, the arithmetic looked different. At its peak after the Great War, the British empire covered nearly a quarter of the Earth’s land surface and encompassed a similar proportion of global population, more than 500 million. France accounted for only 9 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and 108 million of its people. During the Second World War, the UK mobilised 5.9 million people into the armed forces, while the ‘white dominions’ – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – raised nearly 2.5 million, and India more than 2 million.

Britain’s ability to project power through a formidable navy and merchant fleet rested on the fact that it was also the world’s first industrial nation. The country’s initial manufacturing boom had been driven by the cotton trade. By 1830 raw cotton made up a fifth of Britain’s net imports, and cotton goods accounted for half the value of its exports. The next growth sector was iron and steel, stimulated by the railway mania of the 1830s and 1840s and then sustained by British dominance in the finance and construction of railways around the world. By 1860 a country with only 2 per cent of the world’s population was producing half the world’s iron and steel and generating 40 per cent of world trade in manufactured goods. Britain boasted the largest GNP (Gross National Product) in the world, despite vast inequalities of wealth, and its population enjoyed the highest average per capita income.

Yet Britain’s economic advantage was bound to be reduced once the process of industrialisation spread to countries with larger populations and greater resources – Germany in the late 19th century, America during the 20th century and China in the 21st. The United States and the People’s Republic are both countries the size of a continent, benefiting from a huge workforce, abundant natural resources and a prodigious tariff-free internal market.

The predominant British response as others caught up economically was to consolidate existing advantages. That was Joseph Chamberlain’s answer: build an imperial trading bloc to protect Britain’s position in textiles and heavy industry. More enduring than his “imperial preference” was the country’s naval-industrial complex – based on integrated steel, armaments and shipbuilding firms such as Vickers, Armstrong Whitworth and John Brown – as well as the Royal Dockyards, which later diversified into tanks, aircraft and missiles. The “warfare state”, to use historian David Edgerton’s term, matters as much in the history of modern Britain as the welfare state. And the network of global seaborne trade generated banks, insurance and other financial services built around sterling as a global currency. After the demise of the sterling area in the 1960s, the City of London adapted its skills to the Eurodollar market and the development of an immensely lucrative and lightly regulated offshore banking sector.

But not even these innovations could prevent the global balance of force shifting against Britain. International rivalries intensified from the 1860s (after a half-century of peace since 1815) with the scramble for Africa in the 1880s and 1890s and the attempted partition of China at the turn of the 20th century. Otto von Bismarck’s new German empire – created by victories over Denmark, Austria and France – became the greatest military power on the continent. In 1871 Benjamin Disraeli warned that “the balance of power has been entirely destroyed and the country which suffers most… is England”. Confronting the expansion of a militaristic Germany drew Britain into two world wars during the first half of the 20th century, which cost more than a million lives.

Disraeli warned that “the balance of power has been entirely destroyed and the country which suffers most… is England

The turn of the 20th century also witnessed the eclipse of Britain’s naval supremacy. In 1883 the Royal Navy boasted 38 battleships; the rest of the world had 40. In 1897, the balance had shifted to 62 against 96. By this time the Russian empire had expanded across Asia to the Pacific, generating friction along the borders of British India. And other new non-European powers were emerging. Japan had industrialised and turned its economic strength into military might, defeating Russia in a war triggered by rival imperial ambitions in north-east Asia in 1904–05.

The growth of these rivals exposed the fact that Britain was, effectively, “an artificial world power”, to quote the German commentator Constantin Frantz in 1882, because its “territorial basis” was “just a European country” and its resources came from far-flung colonies connected to the home island only “through the threads of the fleet”. Britain was not a vast continental empire like the USA or the USSR (after each had surmounted its crisis of civil war – in 1861–65 and 1917–22 respectively). During the Second World War, the German and global challenges became intertwined, with devastating consequences for Britain. The fall of France within a month in 1940 left Hitler dominant across continental Europe; Britain’s hopes of victory now depended on the United States. And the Nazi triumph emboldened Italy and Japan to jump into the war, obliging the Royal Navy to confront three foes when it had only enough seapower to deal with two.

Britain’s imperial bluff was finally called in the winter of 1941–42. Pearl Harbor triggered a Japanese blitzkrieg across south-east Asia that undermined the credibility of the European empires. Images of gawky British officers in baggy shorts signing the surrender of Singapore and then marching off to Japanese prison camps were beamed around the world, shattering the image of racial superiority on which British power relied. And the panic offer of independence to India in the crisis of 1942 had to be honoured after the war – beginning the domino-like process of decolonisation.

British soldiers surrender to the Japanese in Singapore, 1942.
British soldiers surrender to the Japanese in Singapore, 1942. “Images of gawky officers in baggy shorts marching off to Japanese prison camps shattered the image of British racial superiority,” says David Reynolds. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The summer of 1940 – the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk and victory in the Battle of Britain – dominates Britain’s standard national narrative of the Second World War, while the impact of the imperial disasters in 1941–42 has been largely ignored. Yet in the country’s global history, ‘Singapore’ matters far more than ‘Suez’.

Technologies of warfare were also changing. Britain’s insularity counted for much less in the eras of airpower and then ballistic missiles. Hostile states could now vault over the Channel ‘moat’. And in the atomic age, Britain lacked the means to repel, or even deter, aggressors. Hence its reliance on the postwar world’s leading superpower, the United States, and on Washington’s security umbrella in the form of the Atlantic alliance. The UK’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent depends on US missile systems – initially Polaris and latterly Trident.

None of this means that Britain is irrelevant in world affairs. To this day, it’s the only European member of the Western Alliance, apart from France, to maintain a capacity for power-projection outside the Nato area. Although precise rankings ebb and flow, in 2017 it was the 10th-largest exporter and fifth-largest importer, and ranks among the top three in both inward and outward foreign investment. The result is a position in power and wealth that one might expect for a post-colonial state of its size, population and resources. And the country’s history, culture and language constitute immense ‘soft-power’ assets.

Workers protest Tata Steel's 2016 announcement it was pulling out of the UK
Workers protest Tata Steel’s 2016 announcement it was pulling out of the UK. Badly managed deindustrialisation is the cause of many of the problems besetting modern Britain, argues David Reynolds. (Photo by Ben Birchall – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

But that’s cold comfort if you’re obsessed with the ‘G’ word, with a version of ‘our island story’ that features past greatness, without understanding how and why it came about. Especially if you fail to appreciate the role of the empire in Britain’s historic wealth and power. From such perspectives, any feeling of being on the same level as countries that ‘we’ defeated in the past, especially Germany, makes relative decline seem like abject humiliation.

Where might Brexit fit in this story? We don’t know and it will take years to find out. Neither side in the 2016 referendum had any detailed plan for ‘exiting’ the EU. ‘Leave’ was a brilliant PR slogan but it did not address the complexity of extricating the country from an international organisation in which the UK has been entangled for nearly half a century. Brexit is not something that a leader can deliver like a parcel or a pizza. It will take years.

And the ‘G’ word doesn’t help. The Brexit mess since 2016 has left the UK divided (both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain), with its self-belief dented and its global image for stability and common sense badly tarnished. A leader might be tempted into trying to “make Great Britain great again” through military muscle and diplomatic brinkmanship. But perhaps different defi-nitions of national ‘greatness’ are needed in the 21st century.

Britain now boasts a position in power and wealth that you might expect for a postcolonial state of its size, population and resources

One driver of Brexit was a sense of alienation against the metropolitan elite. This reflected the dominance of London throughout Britain’s global heyday, as the centre of government, finance, trade and high culture. And it was also testimony to the persistent neglect of economic diversification north of the Midlands, after Britain’s staple industries – first textiles and coal, later steel and cars – were undermined by global competitors. Economic historian Jim Tomlinson has argued that ‘deindustrialisation’ not ‘decline’ is the most appropriate narrative framework for post-1945 British history.

Governments of both major parties have not seriously addressed this challenge. They didn’t promote new forms of employment when towns dependent on coal, steel or textiles had their main industry closed down. They have failed to foster the skills needed for a flexible life of work, especially in the robot economy. And they haven’t addressed England’s ‘devo-deficit’, exposed by the flourishing of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.

Brexit will do little to make Britain feel great again if politicians ignore the alienation that underlay the vote in 2016. And that requires a clearer, less clichéd view of where we’ve come from, so as to envision where we should be going. It means treating the past not as an excuse for nostalgia but as a spur to future action. Or, borrowing a Churchillian phrase, as “a springboard and not a sofa”.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at the University of Cambridge. His latest book, Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit, has just been published by William Collins

MORE FROM US: For more on international relations, try BBC World Histories, our sister magazine. 

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This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine