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Is the United Kingdom Still A Superpower?

What makes Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair so keen to join the U.S. proposed attack on Iraq?

September 6, 2002

What makes Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair so keen to join the U.S. proposed attack on Iraq?

Although Tony Blair's support for George W. Bush's opposition to Saddam Hussein is by no means unequivocal, Britain still appears steady as the only real ally that the United States has for military action. This is despite the fact that the very idea of attacking Iraq is massively unpopular with the British public.

One recent opinion poll found that two-thirds of voters would oppose an attack on Iraq. That statistic is almost perfectly replicated by the level of opposition to an attack within Blair's own ruling Labour Party.

Popular or not, Mr. Blair is merely keeping up with tradition.

He is the latest in a long line of post-war British prime ministers who see the worldwide political role of their country far out of proportion to its actual size, wealth — or importance.

The empire upon which "the sun never set" was blown to pieces by the winds of change decades ago. The problem is that nobody seems to have told this to Britain's prime ministers — with dire consequences for the country itself.

In recent generations, there have been few causes to which the British government has not found it worthy enough to commit troops.

Think of the 45,000 British troops who served in what we may soon be calling the first Gulf War, in 1991. Or think of the 13,000 that went to Kosovo — the largest single national contribution to the United Nations deployed in the province. Or the British paratroopers sent in to stabilize the West African state of Sierra Leone in 2000.

Each of these military deployments was supported by relatively convincing moral arguments. Yet, if they even sent troops at all, its European neighbors generally committed far less than Britain. France, for example — a country that once governed a global empire of its own — sent 18,000 troops to the Gulf War and around 5,000 to Kosovo.

Such a consistently prominent world role surely implies that Britain is a superpower with a huge population, an economy worth trillions — and a sophisticated military many millions strong.

The truth could not be more different. The United Kingdom has a population of 60 million. This puts it in the same league as countries such as Ethiopia, which has 64 million people — and Turkey, which has 65 million.

Britain's economy isn't too shabby, but is still only the fourth-largest in the world, behind the United States, Japan and Germany.

And although deployed in a variety of hotspots around the world, Britain's military is miniscule when compared to those of China, Russia or the United States.

However, for generations, British leaders have had a financial and intellectual desire to punch above their weight on the world stage. One result is that British defense spending has consistently been among the highest in Europe.

Even today, following the end of the Cold War and a decade of cutbacks, U.K. defense expenditure is greater than that of France or Germany. Almost seven percent of British central government expenditure goes to the military. This compares to 5.9% in France and 4.7% in Germany, respectively.

This overseas obsession has distracted successive British governments from the task of correcting their own country's social problems.

Consequently, in terms of the quality of life and public services that their citizens enjoy, other medium-sized European countries have zoomed far ahead of Britain.

Take healthcare, for instance. During the late 1990s, French health expenditure on a per capita basis was $2,288 — and that of Germany $2,697 per person. In both cases, the majority of health funding came from the state.

During the same time period, the average Briton had just $1,675 spent on their health. These spending differentials have had a vast impact. There are just 4 beds per 1000 hospital patients in the United Kingdom today, compared to 8.5 in France and 9.3 in Germany.

Little wonder then that, in May 2002, Germany's Stern magazine labeled Britain "The English patient" for its failing health care system.

Healthcare is just one example. Another is transport. Taking the Eurostar train from London to Paris reveals differences between the opposing sides of the English Channel to be as stark as that between night and day. Eurostar runs at high speed and connects half-way across France.

Once in Britain, however, the same trains must go far slower on tracks designed at the end of World War II in a system that only reaches as far as London.

Today the consequences of this overseas obsession are all too apparent to its neighboring nations, for many of whom Britain is the sick boy of Western Europe.

All too apparent it would seem — except to the British government. In London, media speculation increasingly focuses not on if the U.S.-U.K. alliance should attack Iraq, but when.

Meanwhile, British trains are often delayed for hours at a time. And those who can afford it increasingly fly abroad for private medical treatment. But then again, that's tradition.

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