The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

As the Sun Sets on the United Kingdom

In Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, there’s a long chapter on the destruction of the Port of London. Hall doesn’t call it that; he is more impressed by the change from a decaying port which was close to a slum, which was losing importance to a new neighbourhood, headlined by the huge Canary Wharf complex, which is 97 acres with 16 million square feet of indoor space.

The port of London had been the greatest port in the world in the 19th century, but had slipped into decline in the 20th century, especially after WWI and II. The problems seemed intractable and the fact was that London was no longer the center of the world by 1980; it was New York. The Empire was gone, and when Britain joined the EU it abandoned its emphasis on economic and trade ties with the Commonwealth, made up of former members of the Empire like India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and many more.

I remember the Commonwealth world, if barely, and my parents lived the prime of their lives in it. There was a lot of trade and travel and an entire class of people who moved easily between Commonwealth nations. But Britain, post-WWII had been de-industrializing, and Thatcher’s policies, economically, amounted to a “Fuck it, we’re giving up industry and pivoting entirely to finance.”

I recently saw someone mention the debate in England right now between the policies of Thatcher and Reagan (there wasn’t that much difference) but this is insane.

Thatcherism, Reganism, and indeed, neoliberalism, relied on built-up fat of the land. Thatcher’s big bribe to voters was letting them buy their council housing for below what it was worth. Over the neoliberal period, virtually everything owned by the state was sold off to the private sector: water, power, railroads, and as much administrative outsourcing as possible. Regulations were cut as much as possible, held back by the EU, which while neoliberal, prefers to keep some standards.

Industry was sold off to whoever wanted to buy it, often at fire-sale prices, and most of the purchases were moved overseas to places with cheaper labor.

A huge housing bubble, largely in greater London, was created. Housing bubbles always seem like free money at first, but they don’t create productive assets; what they do is make some people rich, let those who own at the beginning or get in early enough gain unearned wealth, and drive up the costs of living, and thus labor costs. This means that housing bubbles actually make a country less productive.

They’re attractive as hell, at first, and the play has been done often. Turkey under Erdogan ran one, and for about 15 years it looked great and a lot of people were made better off. But Turkey had a lot less fat to burn on the fires of housing speculation than the US, Britain, or Canada and when it ran out Turkey went into an economic tailspin. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but you can’t have housing as your engine of growth forever.)

Now, clearly, Britain was not going to regain its position as the greatest industrial nation, but by financializing and running a long housing bubble, and deliberately selling off all the areas of the state which need to be performed with competence, uniformly and at a low, fixed cost, Britain destroyed most of what it had left.

The port of London is symbolic of this. While London didn’t need it, and certainly wasn’t going to need the kind of mega-port it had been earlier, just giving it up meant the wholesale destruction of a myriad of small shipping, logistics, insurance, chandlery, repair, and shipbuilding companies.

It’s easy to destroy a network like that, but it’s hard to rebuild it. The smart play would have been to plan for a smaller port, but do what they could to keep as much of the network as possible. Mercantile policies similar to what Germany followed (or Northern Italy, until the Euro smashed them) were what was required for Britain to have a prosperous future.

What they did, instead, was throw everything productive on a huge fire, and live off what Brits had created for centuries. It worked for about 30 years, for at least a plurality of Brits, and it made a lot of people rich, but it also impoverished the industrial north and created massive distrust for the establishment, which was later parlayed to sell Brexit, as British decline was correlated so strongly with the period of its membership in the EU. (The EU was not responsible, and its policies made doing the right thing possible — if anyone had wanted to. No one did, but even so, EU laws actually slowed down the burn.)

Britain came out of WWII with a very bad hand. The US wanted to replace them, and they put the boots to Britain, doing what they could to ensure the UK would experience no industrial recovery, and that Britain would remain an American satrapy.

But as bad as that hand was, Thatcherism was a self-inflicted wound. There were alternative policies which wouldn’t have sold the patrimony to have a 30-year party.

Britain is in a position now where there is almost nothing left to throw on the fire. The NHS is next, but that’s about all there is.

Corbyn was the last chance to make a turn, but the British elite united against him, smearing him with lies and Labour party operatives actively worked against his election — to the extent of lying to him about what ads were running and making sure his phone would see ads ordinary people didn’t.

So now, the Brits have a situation where “Great Britain” will likely come to an end: Remember that the United Kingdom is Scotland + England + Northern Ireland, and that Scotland is soon likely to go. I expect Northern Ireland as well, and even Wales is possible in a couple decades.

Those who rule England will still be rich, but they will rule over an impoverished nation. They’ll be able to afford servants and estates again, though, and I suspect they want a return to that “kind of life” more than anything else.

If the British, or the English (or the Scottish, etc.), want a future, they need to do something they’ve so far been unwilling to do: Replace their leadership class wholesale, getting rid of their class of public school-educated politicians and businessmen. Without this, it is not possible for the right things to be done — and even if they got rid of those people, they’ll have to rebuild from very close to nothing.

It seems likely that the sun will set on Britain, as it has on every other great empire.

Hail Britannia, and goodbye.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 17, 2022


Russia Turns Up the Pressure (and Turns Off the Gas) on Germany and the EU


  1. Ché Pasa

    Who, exactly, should replace the British leadership class?

    Is there anyone with the skill and moxie and determination to do it — anyone with a significantly different ruling philosophy? Where have they been hiding all these years?

  2. someofparts

    The determination of Britain to commit suicide is getting an assist from Putin.

    I keep wondering if Putin took some of the lessons he learned from mastering judo and applied them to his conduct of foreign policy.

  3. bruce wilder

    “There is no alternative.” Thatcher’s famous phrase. Britain had worked domestically as a political economic system in a certain accustomed way for decades and that way turned on coal and steel. The coal was running out, the technologies for mining coal needed many fewer bodies and new steel was no longer needed by Europe in the quantities supplied.

    I remember the political struggle that ensued. I remember in particular hearing from experts from England involved in structuring policy to “save” British Steel. I studied the 1960s consolidation and collapse of British motor industry when in college in the 1960s.

    The economy — any political economy made up of institutionalized organizations — does seem to age and grow old and infirm, to suffer from diseases of old age. The political urge to preserve or renew occupies the attention of any political grouping representing the interests sinking into obsolescence. Enormous political effort went into super-modernized coal mining operations in Britain — utterly pointless since the coal was running out and being displaced by petroleum anyway.

    Other cases are more politically puzzling. The NHS is incredibly popular in Britain, but the campaigns to starve it of resources and privitize it go back decades and no alternative course for policy is ever viable. Great scandals and tragic stories deter none of the assaults. The dense network of passenger rail is expensive and efforts to raise its technological standard have been thwarted or slowed repeatedly. It was many years after the Chunnel that high-speed rail finally reached an appropriate London terminus for the route to Paris — the most salient “need” I can imagine and British politics responded very slowly still.

  4. Purple Library Guy

    @Che Pasa That comment makes it sound like you need some special, amazing brand of human . . . but in fact, anyone not determined to destroy the country would be an improvement. You could grab random people by lot and they’d do a better job than the current elite. You could grab a bunch of social workers, nurses and union leaders and they’d do a MUCH better job.

  5. anon y'mouse

    it doesn’t matter if the queen dies, as the worker/managers all over the world carry the same disease—plantation/estate mentality.

    what do you think corporations are doing to entire countries as we speak?

    the upper classes in UK are all diversified. they are getting money for letting their lands lie somewhat fallow, or “preserving” the natural environment, put some into production, tax or other breaks for showing off parts of their stately homes for a few days each month and renting out a room or two for an event, and the liquid money is put to work in investments which chase return all over the planet, no?

    it has been rumoured that the Queen (Liz II) herself owned prime San Francisco real estate during the 70s/80s/90s. a place she probably went to twice and not within the boundaries of her own commonwealth (officially, anyway). and that’s likely true all over the world. aren’t the Channel Islands their closer Caymans?

    the new queen has already left the nest and started a colony of locusts elsewhere, so regardless that the old queen’s nest becomes more barren, the ideology survives in the worldwide ruling class. they will make sure the national governments manage the HR department and that those governments are “revenue neutral” with regard to that task (bringing in just as much from the “human resources” as money spent on them, while spending ever less and less on them) while the ruling class gets any expansion in money supply to their own investment pools.

    it’s just the people and the environment that will be screwed in all of this.

  6. Irish Tom

    The Irish could take over…

  7. Hickory

    I’ve been curious about why Britain was so f’d after ww2. Why couldn’t the Brits prioritize and hang on to more things, like India? Was it the loss of human manpower in the wars? Or loss of industrial capacity to German bombings?

  8. VietnamVet

    What happened to Great Britain also took place in the USA in spades. It is just they are leading the pack in transforming private/state economies into the ultimate neo-liberal outcome of no effective government and ending business and progressive income taxes. The little people are on their own unless they are servants to high caste property owners.

    An interesting aspect of the Tory PM selection is if a politician of Indian descent gets selected or not. In my two years, long ago, of living in a former British Colony, the native majority controlled the government, the Chinese ran the businesses and the Indian 10% minority survived any way they could. Much like Barrack Obama followed by Donald Trump and Joe Biden hastened the splintering apart of the USA (which is a taboo subject in corporate media), an East Indian PM will accelerate the loss of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Global exploitation quickens ethnic conflict.

    The strangest aspect of neo-liberalism is that NATO and the Russian Federation are in a full-blown proxy world war in Ukraine with a WWI level of industrial slaughter; yet neither side is fully mobilized. They can’t without the public’s support that they are losing. Russia would if it could. They will have to if the Kremlin expects to pacify Western Ukraine before invading Poland. All sides appear delusional.

    Indeed, intense historic heat domes have settled over Europe and Texas. The shortage of Russian natural gas will shut down the Europe and freeze civilians this winter. But, addressing climate change and peace is just a mirage. There is nothing that can stop in inevitable escalation to a nuclear WWIII except an armistice, or worker revolts like last century in Russia and in Sri Lanka, today.

    The restoration of democratic republics run by and for the people is existential. It is a matter of human survival.

  9. GrimJim

    “Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves
    Britons never, never, shall be slaves
    Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves
    Britons never, never, shall be slaves…”

    Wrong on both counts…

  10. Mike Harrison

    In “The Mythical Man-Month” Fred Brooks discusses the way computer software degrades over time, and observes that this exemplifies a general phenomenon. He quotes C.S.Lewis. In general I hold no brief for Lewis, but here I think he hits the nail squarely on the head:

    “That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended – civilizations are built up – excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top, and then all slides back to misery and ruin.”

    We are seeing this play out in real time in both the UK and the US.

  11. Trinity

    There is nothing “great” about an empire, or imperialism. The misery wrought by such organizational structures, the waste and cruelty, the violence against people and the rest of nature, all these mean they deserve their spot in the trash heap of failed (and they always fail) empires.

    That said, I’m positive their ruling classes will have a top spot in the new, global empire.

  12. Joan

    I hope the Celtic languages survive all this. Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, (Breton in France), and Manx are still alive. Cornish is being revived. Welsh is the only one not at high risk, I believe. I always found it strange that Ireland got their own country but their language is at much greater risk than Welsh.

  13. Jorge

    Ha! I did not know about the Facebook micro-targeting hack for Corbyn’s campaign. The Labour party guys claimed they were running real ads, but only Corbyn’s internal crew would see them. Gawd damn!

  14. Feral Finster

    Britain as sidekick to the United States has no choice but to constantly stir up conflict around the world and egg on its American master, as otherwise Britain has no way to demonstrate its slavish support.

    Similarly, if Russia were to disappear from the world today, Ukraine would no longer be the pampered pet of the United States but a pariah state, and Poland would go from America’s Special Friend to a midlevel satrapy of the American Empire of no particular consequence. Like Colombia with delusions of grandeur, but worse weather and no cocaine.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén