Much has been written about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and much of what has been written has been to the effect that a great empire cannot fall from without until it has fallen from within. Up until recently, Great Britain was a different example of imperial decline: long after it lost its ring of colonies around the world, it nevertheless maintained its political, cultural and economic importance as a great power. Britain was still great because, like its American cousins on the other side of the proverbial pond, it had learned how to preserve the essential aspects of its national character while adapting to the changing world surrounding it. It welcomed its Commonwealth subjects as citizens, it listened to Elvis and gave us the Beatles, it sought new opportunities for investing its capital and found many such opportunities here in the U.S, and it joined its Continental neighbors in providing an expanded safety net for its citizens.
All of that lasted until the beginning of what we can now call the Thatcher-to-Cameron era. And, if there's a useful way to sum up the feelings of Britain, now that it is over, it might be this: Screw adaptation! We want our white world back!
That's not the sort of tone I try to strike in this blog, but it's hard to talk civilly about Britain in the wake of Brexit. Perhaps the closest I can come to being civil about it is to say this: after Brexit, Great Britain is neither great nor is it really Britain anymore.
Let's begin with the fact that the pro-Brexit or Leave vote was an English-Welsh vote, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union. The latter vote was so overwhelming that there is already talk of a second referendum on Scottish independence. Even more amazingly, there is talk of Northern Ireland not only leaving Britain, but becoming part of a united Ireland. To my surprise, there is already a legal framework for making such a union possible. This ought to give anyone familiar with Irish history cause for pause. If the Irish on both sides of the bloody religious divide value EU membership so much that they are willing to put centuries of Protestant-Catholic enmity aside for the sake of sharing EU benefits, what does that say about the British ideal? And does anyone have any doubt about the outcome of a second Scottish referendum?
Even if a unified Ireland and an independent Scotland did emerge from the Brexit rubble, its hard to imagine that the core English voters, the ones who live outside the cosmopolitan island of London, would care very much. Unlike their upper-class fellow Tories, they don't define being English in any institutional sense, whether the institutions in question are the House of Lords or the stock markets. They define it in the crudest way possible: by the color of their skin. They are not even bound by the traditional English appreciation for civility protected for centuries by unarmed bobbies. They openly foment violence, even when they deny that they are doing so. And they are unmoved by the possibility that their actions may lead to economic chaos.
If there is anything that could be said to link voters on the Remain and Leave sides of the Brexit vote, it may be an exhaustion and frustration with the fruits of laissez-faire economics, the hallmark of the Thatcher-to-Cameron era. This, of course, is an exhaustion and frustration shared by Americans, who have had their own taste of this misery in the Reagan-to-Bushes era. An economic policy that promised freedom and opportunity for all has been, over time and in both nations, to be a con game run by the investing class. Anger at this is legitimate, but responding to it with bigotry is not. All that does is pit one set of victims against another, with the one-percenters laughing as they count the money we continue to funnel to them.
That is what British and American conservatism now have in common: each is a mix of wealthy cosmopolitans and poor bigots. They are houses divide against themselves, and as such neither can stand any longer. It may be unfair to criticize David Cameron too much for this: like Nicholas II and Egon Krenz before him, it may simply his fate to have been the last man standing at the end of a historical charade.
Then again, perhaps the British themselves are weary of a national identity that seems no longer able to provide them with peace and prosperity, regardless of who is in charge of government. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all of this is how few people really cared about a vote on an issue that clearly dictated the fate of the nation. Many people voted with their feet, by staying home. It may be the case that they just took Britain for granted, and only cared about the outcome once it was too late.
Or, it may simply be the case that they no longer cared if the majority of their fellow Britons no longer cared about anything other than being English and white. In that case, perhaps the fate of the British Empire does mirror the fate of its Roman counterpart. It did not fall apart from without; it fell apart from within.