Britain: A Normal Country, At Long Last (Like Germany)
How has the UK’s coalition government succeeded in reinventing British politics and society?
October 19, 2010
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown perpetrated a massive fraud on the British people — and on most of Europe. While they were slickly proclaiming a new politics and a cool Britannia, they made sure the country held on to all its delusions of past grandeur.
In sharp contrast, the two 40-somethings — David Cameron and Nick Clegg — have wasted no time in cutting off much of what used to be called “alte Zoepfe” in old Prussia: time-worn traditions that have completely outlived their usefulness and stood in the way of modernity.
Among those traditions are decades of back-pain-inducing sitting on the fence on all matters European, a status-anxiety-driven inclination to support a military beyond the country’s financial means and global weight — and, by consequence, the special relationship with the United States.
Nothing indicates more clearly, and refreshingly, that the new government is keen on making the UK a “normal” country than its willingness to put all such credos on the table.
The particularly courageous point about all this is that the end product, intriguingly, will be a country whose outlook on the world and domestic and European policy choices resembles Germany's.
Germany, you will recall, required quite a few decades until, after the enormously tragic misstep of engaging in fascism for a good decade, it managed to credibly overcome the dark shadows of its disastrous past.
Some decades after Hitler’s death, and following much serious soul-searching and strife over accountability, Germany eventually became a "normal" country — that is, one satisfied with its middling place in a reshaped world and cured from trying to punch above its geopolitical weight.
By comparison, the United Kingdom has the distinct advantage of never having overreached anywhere near as badly, despite a troublesome colonial legacy.
Over time, however, that advantage turned into a significant disadvantage. How so? A natural opportunity to revisit the past from top to bottom and rid itself of all the losing elements never really arose.
What happened to Britain post-1945, in hindsight, is a bit like what happened to the Soviet Union. The latter reveled in the false security of having taken a lot of industrial machinery from (East) Germany as reparations, and thus overestimated its economic strength.
The UK similarly overestimated its power by desperately holding on to the misleading belief that it was one of the winners of World War II and hence was entitled to a seat at the table.
Now, wartime Britain’s ability to hold out against fascist forces until the United States was finally willing to jump into the action is an eternal inspiration in the global annals of democracy.
But truth be told, Britain wasn’t so much a victor of World War II as a survivor. And its belief in being a winner overshadowed the need for true reinvention.
While there was Margaret Thatcher, who did restructure some key British economic traditions, she did not launch a fundamental reconsideration of Britain’s role in global affairs.
That is why the current British debate about reducing the defense budget — and ultimately giving up the modernization of its nuclear submarines for the simple reason of being unaffordable — is so important.
Ironically, there are sharp voices in the British debate who warn against any such curtailment of the defense sector, for the reason that it would eliminate the manufacturing base for one of the last industries — the arms trade — in which Britain is globally competitive.
To their great credit, Messrs. Cameron and Clegg understand that defeating such voices is precisely what it takes to ready their country for the future.
In remaking the UK, the country will put much less emphasis on the military domain and instead focus on the non-military dimensions of foreign policy, much like Germany.
Mind you, the ever-sanctimonious Gordon Brown and Tony Blair pretended as much, but whenever a moment of true choice came up, they fibbed and desperately held on to upholding outdated traditions. In other words, they sounded good — but did little.
The truly new and improved Britain, launched by a compassionate conservative as prime minister (and a man for whom that is not just a clever phrase, as it was for George W. Bush), will undoubtedly undergo a difficult and prolonged time of transition.
There will be, once again, sweat and tears (but, fortunately, no real blood). However, postponing adjustment is no longer an option. In its constant switching between hot and cold, on and off, Labor’s rule of Britain has been one gigantic waste in improving its ability to deal with real challenges.
Nobody exemplifies that fact better than the pompous Lord Mandelson, who seemed to switch semi-annually between advocating a renewed focus on the country’s manufacturing roots versus an unbending belief in casting the City of London (and finance) as the only viable way forward.
His management of national economic strategy by the equivalent of hot flashes will be remembered for the singular vanity of the man. He pretended to be a strategist — but the only real point of government service for him apparently was to have a good go at making himself the center of the universe in a tell-all political book.
That is definitely not the way to remake a country. Tragically, what Messrs. Blair and Brown were really up to was to be the Sarkozy of their time, that is, men who tried to make some right moves, but who were eternally handicapped by their belief in their own royalty.
That is not a promising strategy for any democratic country.
What happened to Britain post-1945 is a bit like what happened to the Soviet Union. It overestimated its economic strength.
Britain wasn't so much a victor of World War II as a survivor. And its belief in being a winner overshadowed the need for true reinvention.
Following much serious soul-searching and strife over accountability, Germany eventually became a "normal" country. Now, it's the UK's turn.
In the future the UK wil focus on the non-military dimensions of foreign policy, much like Germany.
The end product, intriguingly, will be a country whose outlook on the world and domestic and European policy choices resembles Germany's.