Britain's Collapse Of Ambition

April 24, 1997|By William Pfaff

LONDON -- Whichever of the parties wins the British national election May 1, the question has to be asked, win for what? Win for the sake of winning is all that is discernible now; this is a campaign with few serious promises made, and without a vision.

Labor and the Liberal Democrats make proposals for constitutional change -- devolution of power to Scottish and Welsh assemblies in Labor's case, a move toward proportional representation in voting should the Liberal Democrats do well enough, or Labor poorly enough, to force the latter to make concessions to the former in order to govern. But beyond that?

The Conservatives had seemed at the end of the line even before this election was called. They offer nothing much for the future other than more unwanted privatizations of public services in the name of Thatcherite ideology. Some advisers call for totally privatized health and education, and an end to nearly all social allocations. But that has been heard before, and is more likely to prove an explanation for why the Tories lose on May 1, rather than for why they might win.

Labor makes the inoffensive claim that it will manage a Tory policy better than the Tories have done. Only the Liberal Democrats of Paddy Ashdown promise actually to spend money to improve education and the deteriorating health service, impudently declaring that to do so they would raise taxes.

All politics are supposed to be local, but I do not think this is true. People are moved by conceptions of national role and mission. What is Britain for today? People believed they knew the answer to that in the past, and acted accordingly.

The British Empire was created by traders, adventurers, people looking out for themselves, but also by missionaries, visionaries, men and women who believed that they were conveying civilization to the backward, creating institutions of a better international society, spreading truth and enlightenment.

From today's perspective the imperialists are held to have been arrogant and wrong. But such were their motives, and it was not that long ago that the British Empire was thought by many Americans to be a model of international responsibility. At some leading Eastern preparatory schools, such as Groton before World War II, students were taught five years of English history and none of American history.

This was not simply a New England bias. In many if not most American high schools of the time, including the southern public high school this writer attended in the 1940s, the study of England's history was given at least as much time and attention as American history, on the assumption that the latter was simply a continuation of the former. The conclusion drawn was that Britain's war was America's war.

Britain seemed to represent civilized political values, and in important respects to have done so since its suppression of the slave trade in the early 19th century. That was the belief of the World War II interventionists in the U.S., headed by Franklin Roosevelt.

Today Britain seems no longer to have an international role, nor to want one. This cannot be the result of lost power; all the former imperial powers in Europe have suffered a relative power loss. There has been an apparent collapse of ambition in Britain.

The British could have taken the lead in Europe in the postwar decade, but had a plausible notion of a different destiny, at first of reconstituted empire or Commonwealth, then of Atlantic alliance or union. Neither came true.

End of an empire

Britain since has deliberately shed what was left of imperial responsibilities. Handing Hong Kong over to the last surviving Communist dictatorship, where its people will be deprived of political rights, is the final imperial act.

If the British do not want to be part of an integrated Europe, and clearly they do not, and unlike the French and Spanish have chosen to renounce the pursuit of international influence in or through their former empire, what national future do they see for themselves? What future role do Britain's leaders envisage for their country?

A striking fact about this election is that virtually nothing is being said about Britain's place in anything other than Europe. The only international issue debated by the parties (and inside the Conservative party itself) is how best to keep Britain free of Europe's political influence while exploiting Europe's markets.

This seems fundamentally sterile. Yet, paradoxically, it expresses a nationalism that could be powerful if it found a positive outlet. Not even the academics or political commentators have much to say about all this. Surely Britain's place in contemporary history, not to speak of the future, is worth thought? What do the British want? The question has not been posed in this election, either by the prime minister or by his challengers.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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