Britain’s decline is relative, and is influenced by the fact that within living memory the UK was the world’s hyperpower. Decline though did not relegate the UK to the ranks of some ex-colonial powers like Turkey, but into the league of France, Germany and Japan (hardly disrespectable company).
For almost all the post-war period – a few bumpy years notwithstanding – the UK never dipped below number five in the world economy rankings (where it is today). Moreover, it remains (alongside China, France, Russia and the US) one of five permanent UN Security Council members and recognised states with nuclear weapons.
Unlike France, the UK has the scaffolding to rebuild its power status through a unique arrangement with the Commonwealth Realms (which includes both another G8 Country, Canada, and another G20 country, Australia). Combined, these 16 states would represent both the world’s third largest economy and largest polity.
In addition, it is one of only two countries on earth in the premier league of higher education (the other being the US). Brexit or no Brexit, Covid or no Covid, Oxbridge will likely remain Oxbridge. That matters in a world of technological innovation.
Britain’s problem is less one of hard power reality than of attitude. The UK remains a great power with the capacity to one day re-join the league of superpowers if it engineers itself accordingly. Nothing is guaranteed about the continued dominance of the world’s current superpowers.
Instead, Britain has a crisis of confidence. That was obvious in a Budget which lacked inspiration and vision, even if it attempted to put the country on a sounder fiscal footing. Even the big ideas currently on offer such as a US-style research agency involve funds so meagre as to be largely irrelevant.
Despite Britain’s blue water navy and nuclear weapons, the Armed Forces have been cut to the bone for years. They could be made yet smaller in the Integrated Defence and Security Review. But again, this is a problem of confidence. France, as well as ambitious countries in Asia, seem to appreciate the value of their militaries.
All but one of the UK’s 33 infantry battalions are dangerously short of combat-ready troops, according to one Ministry of Defence report. Questions have even been raised about the country’s ability to fight a war or fulfil its obligations to Nato.
Given our global links and history, a booming Britain climbing up the world economy rankings would find it incumbent to retain its current (and adopt an even greater) geopolitical role, with a military budget to match and less squeamishness about projecting itself ‘east of Suez’.
Japan and Germany could – as the world’s third and fourth largest economies respectively – easily field more powerful militaries with geopolitical reach. That they don’t is, as we all know, a product of the second world war.
The UK (and France) has no such constraint. The UK has no excuse, and frankly has no right to abdicate its global responsibilities in a world of hostile actors.
Beyond the US – a country clearly less willing and able to shoulder the Western alliance than in the past – who exactly could or should the UK outsource its defence too?
Neither the military nor the NHS can be well-funded and well-resourced without an economy to pay for them, but also an economy to pay for them makes a well-funded and well-resourced military and NHS impossible to deny to the British people.
Just as a go-for-growth strategy is the only thing which can pull the UK out of the Covid hole, so a dynamic and growing economy is the only thing which can pay for both a first-class health service and a top-tier military.
With its Commonwealth links, superlative higher education sector and London’s status in global finance, the UK is well positioned to stay at the top table. The country simply needs its mojo back and the world needs Britain back. Any defence review needs to reflect that.