This is supposed to be the Asian century. Just as the 20th century saw the rise of American power, just as the 19th century saw the British Empire paint the world red, so this century will see Asian countries grow in global stature. As the wealth of the East rises, so will its might – in international, military, perhaps even cultural terms. Just as the British taught the world footie, rugger and cricket, Dickens, Wilde and Shakespeare, just as the USA spread its love of fast food, films and blue jeans, so may we soon feel the influence of Oriental culture.
Niall Ferguson is the most prominent figure to proclaim the Decline of the West. It is a sinking feeling which has gripped much of the commentariat. When I recently discussed the matter with a friend, I found – to my amazement – that she was thinking of moving to China. She had visited on a cultural exchange, and she loved the bright lights, the language, the mise-en-scène. After further questioning, she said that the West was going down the swanee anyway: the EU and US are doomed to either financial collapse or inevitable decline; British prospects aren’t too sunny either. China, she thought, was the future.
Not so very long ago, young people across the globe would dream of starting a new life in America. It is damning that some are starting to think the other way.
I could say that the Chinese future is far from certain: that there is an instability which lies in the union of despotic state and bulky populace; once growth dips, living standards drop or recession bites, there will be a large unhappy population, minds a-buzz with the thoughts of that Arab Spring. I will not go down that route. I write this post not to do down Eastern prospects, but to raise Western spirits. It’s not all that bleak. As they say in Latin, Niall Desperandum! Niall should not despair!
This is a memo to America. We Brits have been number one before, so trust us: being number six isn’t that bad. Here are four good reasons why Americans shouldn’t worry:
1.) Relative GDP isn’t everything. China may be getting richer relative to the US, but this doesn’t mean that the USA won’t get any richer. The British experience is a good example. Our GDP rankings may have fallen in the past century, but the average Brit is substantially wealthier. Many of us possess our own homes, cars, TVs; we go on more holidays, live longer and aren’t consigned to the same degree of poverty. American dominance has made us no worse off. In fact, due to the brilliance of American innovation, it has probably made us better off.
2.) Your politicians might actually fix stuff at home. The British Empire acted as a silken red blindfold. Victorian politicians talked grandly of how they could civilise every corner of the globe. What they failed to see was the barbarity at home. As that great Liberal Winston Churchill put it, “For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.” After the Second World War, the war that crippled Britannia financially, politicians cast India aside and made a concerted effort to better a Brit’s lot. A fight against ignorance, destitution, idleness, squalor and sickness began. The fight hasn’t stopped since. Perhaps when America is forced to turn inwards, similar miracles will happen.
3.) You get a better sense of humour. At the height of the British Empire, George Orwell said, “Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” At the dawn of modern Britain, every man’s life became one long struggle not to laugh. Humour boomed, with the rise of satire, sketch shows and sitcoms. Comedy has never been so ubiquitous. This may be down to the new technologies of radio, TV and YouTube. But humour has also taken a different tone: sardonic, dark, self-deprecating. Every sitcom hero – from Hancock to Blackadder, from Rigsby to Partridge, from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew – is a half-despairing man who is in some way fundamentally trapped. They still follow this pattern: think of the heroes of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It, The Office. Sod the chirpy tits off Friends and beckon in the far richer comedy of human misery! Perhaps America is already there. Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Daily Show could be the first tottering steps into a world of post-imperial gloom…
4.) Everyone will no longer hate you. This is phrased unfairly, but the sentiment is true. The world hates a bully who wages ceaseless war to prove its might. The hubris of Britannia caused a lot of resentment (and still does, as recent wars show). When one’s national stereotype changes to bumbling twit, one becomes a lot harder to hate.
In all, we have less power and more glory. Modern Britain is a sort of King Lear. We have been cast off our throne, forced to wander in the bleak wilderness of impotence, with no-one to accompany us but a Fool. We have lost everything, but at least we can laugh about it.