Europe, Globe, United Kingdom, World

Searching for Britain’s true calling in life

With newfound diplomatic flourish, the United States has announced that it will no longer sell arms to Saudi Arabia in support of its role in Yemen’s civil war.


Darrin Burgess*


The conflict has already cost 100,000 lives, and prevailing international opinion is that Saudi Arabia’s largest weapons supplier only adds fuel to the fire.

Fortunately for the kingdom, its second-largest supplier, Great Britain, declared that it has no intention at all to halt sales, (whatever the human toll, presumably).

It’s a straightforward matter of self-interest, most likely.

The British simply cannot afford to cancel contracts worth £1.5 billion when it has lost three-quarters of its EU export business, its financial sector is haemorrhaging capital with no end in sight, and the rest of its service sector, comprising basically call-centre employees, restaurant workers, and some advertising agencies, is also greatly diminished.

Brexit notwithstanding, none of those activities ever permitted the UK to achieve levels of income equality that were anything above middling, anyway, compared with its neighbours. It was always rock-bottom in social mobility.

Modern Britain has in fact been one long case study of a nation gripped by unemployment, although it isn’t about a balance between wage-earners and job-seekers. What’s at stake here is a nation’s metier.

Consider the psychology of job-hunting, to begin with, especially in cases where the original career has ceased to exist.

The challenge often isn’t simply to find work. There is always McDonald’s, after all.

“Work” is never simply about work. A job is a passport to a certain milieu, a certain self-identity, a certain status.

French president Emmanuel Macron discovered this for himself 18 months ago when he was excoriated for telling a young man who complained of a lack of opportunity to just “cross the street” and get a job waiting tables. French society is one that places a lot of emphasis on metier, the notion that a job should provide an individual with a sense of destiny.

The loss of a metier is traumatic; it can initiate various counterproductive behaviours that complicates any effort at renewal.

For half a century now, since the Suez crisis closed the book on its Empire, Great Britain has been without a metier. It has frittered away its time, fruitlessly submitting applications for Colonialist, while juggling temporary jobs and maxing out its credit cards in order to maintain an erstwhile socio-economic status.

Part of this preoccupation involves an embarrassing obsession with the United States — part inferiority complex, part Stockholm Syndrome — summarized in the idea of a “special relationship” that practically no one in the US has ever heard of.

A lost metier can have lasting effects on an individual’s mind-set. What then does “empire” do to a nation?

Consider that the British Empire was never an empire at all but an “imperial system,” which is a phrase that historian John Darwin has used to describe an arrangement that resembled a closed economy like the Soviet Union. Essentially, the British acquired raw materials at below-market rates, added value in the cheapest way possible, then resold the results for a profit.

The real achievement was in its vast logistical system, which provided lucrative spin-off enterprises in financial services and shipping. The British Empire was the of its day.

It was indeed a manufacturing powerhouse. It was once the original global purveyor of weapons, for example, well before the US captured that distinction.

As Stanford historian Priya Satia explains, however, British guns were generally of poor quality, designed not for performance but ease of manufacture.

Looking more broadly at the UK, it seems that the Empire sowed into its conscious a certain notion of success that involves capturing a marketplace by whatever means necessary so that customers will buy whatever is being sold.

And that does seem to sum up the present British economy (up until last December, at least), with its enticingly unregulated financial enterprises, and its budget-priced English-language services.

Living in London for several years, I was struck by the frequency of many would-be entrepreneurs who all described the same basic strategy, which was to outsource day-to-day operations to menial-wage employees once that business was underway, then jet off to someplace like a beach in Spain.

Absentee ownership, passing the real work down to unfortunate subordinates: that is the psychology of the colonialist.

The centrality of the English language and of Britain’s global time zone, both legacies of the Empire, have allowed it to continue its old role as global middle-man and rent-collector. Those in Britain for whom the “Big Bang” of the 1980s never found a place have languished meanwhile in curiously provincial neglect. Great Britain has always remained the backwater at the centre of the world.

Brexiteers were probably right that being tethered to Europe prevented their nation from evolving. Certainly, the British still exhibit no sign of having developed an actual comparative advantage.

They lack the temperament for precision work that has made successes out of Germany and Japan. Neither does their culture possess the discursive flexibility that permits countries like France and Italy to have achieved breakthroughs in art and design.

Britain really is a uniquely special place, in the sense that no nation seems to be able to provide a model for how they might proceed in their freshly sovereign status.

Actually, there is one nation. That would be the other United Kingdom -of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, of course, which lasted from 1815 to 1821 when the Portuguese government decamped for Rio de Janeiro and created for one time only in history a perfect union between colony and colonialist.

How different things would be for Portugal now, if that had lasted. One can only imagine. At any rate, Britain could “have its cake and eat it, too,” as Boris Johnson infamously promised: It could apply to be the fifty-first American State. It’s a job with a rolling admission, after all.

The land grab alone by wealthy Americans for what’s left of Britain’s nice-looking countryside would be a boon all by itself. British retirees would gain in Florida what they’ve lost now in Spain.

Crucially, the British wouldn’t have to exercise any painful soul-searching. They wouldn’t have to change anything, in fact. They could go right back to being the empire that they’ve always imagined themselves to be — just by a different name.

*Darrin Burgess: US-American writer currently based in Paris.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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