Great Britain in transition: From empire to devolution and beyond

(London) The origins of Great Britain were humble- a beleaguered aggregation of newly Christianized tribes made vulnerable to Vikings and other marauders by the 5th century departure of the last Roman legions.

A “hostile takeover” by the descendants of those Vikings – now called Normans- in 1066 transformed the fortunes of the island peoples forever. The expansive energy of the Norman conquerors aimed first at the gradual subjugation of their island neighbors- Welsh, Scots, and Irish. That done these bellicose but talented people set out to extend their sway across the entire world. Rivals for Imperial Dominion- Portugal, Holland, Spain, and France- had their Days in the Sun but in the end could not match the naval and above all the economic might of Britain.

England invented the Industrial Revolution and the unparalleled wealth created by that engine was the indispensable nourishment for the sinews of Empire and also the model for all nations with aspirations for similar prosperity and influence.

Along the way Britain gave us Shakespeare, Milton, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and other cultural/ political manifestations that ultimately are as Churchill noted ”the greatest legacy of the Island Race”.

Exactly one hundred years ago the ascendance enjoyed by Great Britain not just in ruling a quarter of the earth’s population but in almost all fields of human endeavor could not be matched by either Rome or America at their zenith.

Then in that fateful summer of 1914 the colossal miscalculations of European statesmen- none more egregious than those of the British- unleashed the civilizational catastrophe then known as “The Great War” that shaped and continues to haunt the world we live in today. (For details see the compelling analyses of two eminent British historians: Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, and Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War).

Though they had gloriously stood alone in 1940 and defied the dark forces embodied by History’s greatest evil-doer Britain’s Pyrrhic victories in two World Wars proved hollow. The rubble-strewn nation that emerged in 1945 was exhausted- bereft of its wealth, power, and self-confidence.

The Empire upon which “The Sun never Set” vanished in little over a decade, and Britain’s role was reduced to that of adjunct to its mighty American offspring in the long “twilight struggle” of the Cold War.

Great Britain’s search for a new identity has been painful and uncertain. The effort to reconcile the achievements and values of the past with the political, social, economic, and cultural transformations of the present has been profoundly challenging.

Random impressions from academic friends at the University and political friends at Westminster during my current visit suggest that there is not one “New Britain” but several. While differences of Worldview are nothing new in History, the broad and confident general consensus of the late Victorians was dramatically different than the more contentious, and cacophonous environment attending the late years of the present sovereign. In fact the monarchy itself with its core mission of reconciling Change and Continuity remains an interesting barometer of an evolving Britain.

Since Charles De Gaulle’s famous 1963 veto of British membership in the Common Market, the country has been torn between seeing itself principally in terms of a “Special Relationship” with the United States and the Commonwealth or as a member of that newer European Polity- the EU.

At the same time the British people and their government are debating continued association with the European Union –(the Prime Minister has promised an unprecedented national referendum on membership if he is re-elected in 2015)- other voices within the country are questioning whether they want a continued association with Great Britain.

The modern history of Devolution began in 1922 when the largest part of Ireland became independent following long and bloody conflict, and brutal sectarian battles over Northern Ireland continued until very recent times.

In order to find an acceptable middle ground for the other non-English parts of Great Britain, Parliament in recent years granted broad measures of autonomy to both Wales and Scotland.

For many that was sufficient, but for others it was not. Two months from now the Scottish people will hold a national referendum on whether they will continue as part of the United Kingdom (currently Britain’s official name).

Most indications are that the Scots will vote to stay albeit more for practical than sentimental reasons, but not so long ago even having such an election would have been unthinkable.

These tensions are increasingly reflected in the changing face of British politics. Heretofore “fringe parties” like the Scottish National Party (SNP) which wants to leave Britain and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which wants to leave Europe is growing in strength.

Conservative members of Parliament are virtually unelectable outside England. If Scotland left the U.K. the Labor Party would likely never win another national election. Both major parties are hemorrhaging voters to the rising UKIP albeit for different reasons.

Psychologists would say Britain- like several other European countries- is having an “Identity Crisis”. Fundamental questions like “Who Are We?” or “Where are we going?” and “Who Do We Want to Go With?” abound.

These impulses will only grow stronger for the foreseeable future. For now the end result remains hidden from view.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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