• Ryan Metz

A Not So New Phenomenon: The Steady Decline of the United Kingdom


The word Brexit seems synonymous with the word chaos. It may appear as if the once proud and prestigious Britain crashed without warning. On the contrary, although Brexit reflects political and economic disorder, it is by no means an anomaly. Brexit perfectly fits as a chapter in the narrative of Britain's decline as a world power throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century.

After 1945, Britain sought to regain its role as a world power and salvage the remains of a rapidly vanishing empire. In the face of Indian and Pakistani independence, the U.K. made desperate attempts to piece together their reduced holdings in the Middle East. Nevertheless, when Gamal Abdel Nasser challenged British authority in Egypt, British influence continued to wither. Nasser called for the nationalization of the Suez Canal, one of the most critical water-transit ways for British trade, and soon seized control in 1956. Nasser's occupation of the canal prompted Prime Minister of Great Britain, Anthony Eden, to call for British troops to join Israeli and French forces in a full-scale invasion of Egypt. To Eden's dismay, the invasion provoked outrage from world leaders, and after only eight days, a UN ceasefire dictated by the U.S halted the attack. The British government watched with humiliation as the new American superpower angrily demanded they pull out of Egypt permanently. The British invasion, designed to revive the country’s strength and dominance, instead demonstrated Britain's dwindling influence on the world stage. Many cite the Suez Crisis as one of the most symbolic breaking points for the British empire. Others argue that another critical symbol of the empire’s weakness came earlier. In 1947, British officials informed the Truman administration that the government no longer had the monetary or military resources to support Greece and Turkey. After the cable, Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, noted that "the British are finished." With their funds exhausted, the British watch their own displacement as leaders of the Western powers, as the United States took up the mantle of defense against the Soviets. Simon Hall, Professor of Modern History at University of Leed, wrote that both the aid withdrawal and the Suez Crisis "exposed its decline, which up until that point had been kept well hidden." Today the issue of Brexit again reveals the country’s more hidden political instability and its shrinking influence abroad.

The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union attempted to promote the country's renewed sense of strength and self-sufficiency. Just as recently as 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May and Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson touted the possibilities that Brexit offered in obtaining a purely globalist foreign policy. May stated that Brexit “should make us think of global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.”

Since the referendum two years ago, Britain watches its international prestige diminish as its political institutions continue to falter over the fierce debate of an exit deal in Parliament. Last summer the eruption over the Chequers plan, May’s proposed Brexit deal based around "adherence to a common rulebook" of the EU in regards to goods, signaled the growing political turmoil that would consume Brexit. As soon as the agreement went public, David Davis, the minister in charge of negotiating Brexit, resigned immediately in fear of the “common rulebook” as a means of EU control. Days later, Johnson followed the same pattern, leaving out of fear that the Chequers agreement weakened the British to the “status of a colony.” The Chequers battle merely foreshadowed an exhausting uphill battle with an incredibly divided House of Commons and Cabinet. In mid-November when it looked as if the EU and the UK agreed to a provisional deal, history repeated itself as another wave of British ministers began to resign. Ministers such as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab, Universities and Science Minister Sam Gyimah, Work, and Pensions Secretary Esther Mcvey, and Transport Minister Jo Johnson all left in protest of the deal.

Anguish and anxiety over the provisional deal reached its peak when the members of parliament rejected it in a formal vote by a majority of 230 votes on January 15th. May’s failure prompted the Labour Party to call for a vote of no confidence on January 16th. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn first attempted to call for the vote after May decided to delay votes on the provisional deal in December until January 15th, knowing she needed more time to garner support. A vote of no-confidence could immerse the country into an entirely new issue given the potential for a new round of national elections. With no concrete deal, unstable leadership, and a deadline of March 29, the prospect of a turbulent “no deal” Brexit seems most likely.

The idea that Britain might leave the EU without any deal once seemed unimaginable and disgraceful. “Today, advisories outlining how to stockpile on food and essential medicine in the scenario of a no deal Brexit freely circulate in Britain.” Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab argued there were benefits in a no-deal scenario saying “Britain should not pay its divorce bill if Brussels could not come up with anything better.” In response, The International Monetary Fund released a report contradicting Raab’s more upbeat depiction of a “no-deal” case. The report states that a decline of 4% to the UK GDP could occur compared to the 0.5 percent decline that could affect the EU27 under no deal circumstance.

The prospect of a "no-deal" scenario only increases Britain's deference to the other European powers. In October, the Prime Minister Theresa May took her seat for the Belgium summit meeting to hammer out a potential Brexit deal with the European Union. May used the time to beg the EU to extend the transition period set end in December 2020, giving Britain more time to work out a deal. The plead for an extension showcases two contrasting images. The rest of Europe resembles a prestigious, calm, and stable force tasked to deal with the immature and weakened state unable to wield power appropriately.

The inability of May's government to gain any political traction in parliament and the potential economic havoc of a no-deal scenario helped rediscover Britain's well-hidden vulnerability as a world power. The EU once magnified Britain's global influence, bringing it trade deals with 53 other countries; Brexit sacrifices those relationships to secure an “untethered” foreign policy. Brexit, however, bases itself on the assumption that the EU created a “tethered Britain” in the first place. Emerging countries and superpower nations show a significant interest in access to the European Union’s markets of 500 million people. Cutting ties with the EU not only diminishes the country’s prestige as a steady economic ally, but also reveals their slipping political power against the rest of Europe.

Britain's gradual decline in twentieth century has rapidly accelerated in the twentieth first century. Brexit now becomes another marking point that will stand alongside the Suez Crisis and the withdrawal of aid from Greece and Turkey, tracking the rate of the country's decay. Each event reveals a desperation to regain authority lost to new and emerging powers. Brexit, now the latest marking point, continues to expose the country’s vulnerability, weakness, and deference to rival European powers. As the clock counts down to March 29, it looks as if the sun may finally set on what is left of the U.K’s global influence.

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