Despite its early industrial dominance, Britain’s elites never managed to adapt to the new landscape of power. After more than a century of structural breakdown, its very future as a unified state is in doubt.
Every decade or so, the UK finds itself in crisis. These are the moments that open up rare and brief periods of reflection on the decline of the country’s geopolitical relevance and of the British state. Then the gates close, the crisis diminishes, and an overpoweredfinancial services sector—combined with the prestigious longevity of British institutions—cushions the downward trends until the next crisis. The British governing and commercial classes may well vampirically draw on financial and institutional soft power for at least another century. But the cumulative effect of these moments makes it increasingly difficult to deny the British elite’s profound inability to prevent national decline.
British institutions exert impressive amounts of soft power for a tiny island nation. One can think of the country as playing the role of an Italian city-state in the fourteenth century: it capitalizes on historic cultural prestige, educates the children of elites from its former empire, and serves as a playground for wealth and status games while not really producing anything of hard value.
The overall trajectory becomes obvious when you look at outcomes in productivity, investment, capacity, research and development, growth, quality of life, GDP per capita, wealth distribution, and real wage growth measured by unit labor cost. All are either falling or stagnant. Reporting from the Financial Times has claimed that at current levels, the UK will be poorer than Poland in a decade, and will have a lower median real income than Slovenia by 2024. Many provincial areas already have lower GDPs than Eastern Europe.
While all of Europe is getting poorer and weaker as the twenty-first century progresses, the UK is unique in its relative incapacity and unwillingness to find solutions in comparison to peer nations like Germany and France. This is a process that has been gathering pace for centuries, stretching back to trends that began in the 1700s even as its empire was still expanding.
In essence, the distinctively innovative and moralistic culture that distinguished England from Europe, most fully expressed in Puritanism and Cromwellian republicanism, flowed into America’s east coast elites even as it was crushed by the aristocracy at home. Britain’s version of the modernizing class—represented elsewhere by Washington, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Bismarck, the Meiji Emperor, Lenin, Mao, and Nasser—even arose far earlier, during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. It died a premature death, unable to provide the refounding moment for Britain that occurred in 1776 in America, 1789 in France, 1868 in Japan, and 1949 in China.
Because of its status as an initially advantaged first mover, the UK now has a fortified elite content to live on the rents of bygone ages. Its social order is constituted by the cultural legacy of the old aristocracy, underwritten by London financial brokers, and serviced by a shrinking middle class. Its administrative and political classes developed a culture of amateurism, uninterested in either the business of classically informed generalism or that of deep technical specialism. The modern result is a system that incentivizes speculative, consultative, and financial service work over manufacturing, research, and production.