The Economist in this week’s “Bagehot” column opens with a reference to a wartime letter Evelyn Waugh wrote to his wife, using it as a metaphor for Britain’s current political malaise:
WRITING to his wife in May 1942, Evelyn Waugh recounted a true story of military derring-do. A British commando unit offered to blow up an old tree-stump on Lord Glasgow’s estate, promising him that they could dynamite the tree so that it “falls on a sixpence”. After a boozy lunch they all went down to witness the explosion. But instead of falling on a sixpence the tree-stump rose 50 feet in the air, taking with it half an acre of soil and a beloved plantation of young trees. A tearful Lord Glasgow fled to his castle only to discover that every pane of glass had been shattered. He then ran to his lavatory to hide his emotions, but when he pulled the plug out of his washbasin “the entire ceiling, loosened by the explosion, fell on his head.” [Letters, 160-61] A year on from the Brexit referendum Britain feels like Lord Glasgow’s castle…
The article’s title is also an allusion (or at least partial allusion) to Waugh: “Britain’s Decline and Fall.” In addition to noting that Britain is losing its leading role in Europe, its special relationship with the United States is said to be put at risk by the quixotic nature of that country’s present leadership. And Britain’s actions also weaken its position as a leader in the globalization of world trade, something it rather pioneered. The article concludes:
In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, Dean Acheson lamented that Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a role. In the subsequent decades, post-imperial Britain in fact found several roles: as a fulcrum between Europe and America; as an old hand at globalisation in a re-globalising world; and as a leading exponent of neoliberalism. Thanks to the combination of the financial crisis and Brexit, it has lost all of these functions in one great rush. The windows have shattered and the ceiling has fallen in.