How Great Britain is now right on course to become Little Britain
Published 22/10/2015 | 02:30
How did a small island ever become the most powerful country on the planet? Our nearest neighbour was always an unlikely candidate to become the world's superpower, but that is exactly what Britain managed.
For a fair number of decades in the 19th century its economy was the workshop of the world as it led the industrial revolution. On that economic foundation was built the biggest empire that has ever existed.
Although the term 'Great Britain' was coined in Roman times by the geographer Ptolemy to refer to the larger of these two islands (he called Ireland "little Britain"), it was only with the invention of the steam engine, steel and mass production that the country rose to became the most powerful state in the world.
But those days are long gone. The calamitous wars of the first half of the last century drained and indebted the country. For decades after the Second World War Britain was called the 'sick man of Europe' thanks to its record as the continent's slowest-growing big economy. In the mid-1970s it suffered the ignominy of having IMF technocrats arrive in London to sort out its problems.
After a few good decades, Britain is in flux again. Scotland seems ever more likely to break the United Kingdom apart and the Labour party is making a de facto one party state of Britain as it wanders down an ideological cul-de-sac from which it may never emerge.
However, the most disruptive and long-lasting change that is on the cards is a departure from Europe - which voters will decide on in a referendum to be held by the end of 2017.
The European Union - like it or loathe it - is the continent's economic and political problem-solving mechanism. For one of its main powers not to be part of it would be bad for Europe, bad for Britain and, as this column has argued previously, bad for Ireland.
But, as the campaigns to leave or stay started setting out their stalls over the past week, Brexit is now a very real prospect. If the way the respective camps have started their campaigns (the launch by the pro-EU group was a poorly choreographed mess) and rising support for an exit in opinion polls are anything to go by, there is a very real risk that the referendum will lead to a departure.
One reason, if not the main reason, Britons may decide to leave is because they have never been at home in the union in the first place. That is, at least in part, because the country's collective conscience has never fully adjusted to the loss of its great power status in the world.
Nothing illustrates this better than the fantasy of the 'Anglosphere' that some Britons go on about. They believe that by getting closer to the likes of New Zealand and Canada (both great countries, incidentally), Britain will become richer and more influential in the world. These claims are little short of bizarre.
Economically, the English-speaking countries of the world, with the exception of the US, are just too small to become major markets for British goods and services - the combined population of Australia, New Zealand and Canada is smaller than that of the UK.
They are also too far away. For all the fascination politicians have with exotic countries - the likes of India and Brazil - no European country has a big commercial dependence on them. That is because geographic proximity still matters a lot when it comes to doing business.
The notion that Britain would be taken more seriously around the world if it made more of the Anglosphere is almost always cited by people who advocate leaving the EU. As world leaders up to and including the most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama, have explicitly made clear, relations with Britain would be downgraded if it did not have a seat around Europe's most important table. In short, Britain will be diminished in the world if it leaves Europe, not strengthened.
Another example of the topsy-turvy world view that exists in some quarters across the water was well articulated earlier in the week by British academic Anand Menon.
On a visit to Dublin he noted that many Eurosceptics claim that Britain has rings run around it in Europe by small countries such as Belgium, but that by leaving the EU it would, in some miraculous way, suddenly be able to negotiate with the likes of China, eyeball to eyeball.
With the Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit to Britain at the moment, and many accusing the Cameron administration of kowtowing subserviently to the Asian giant for short-term commercial gain, the relationship between the two countries doesn't look like being one of equals, whether Britain is in or out of the EU.
If David Cameron has been criticised for his China diplomacy, he has come in for more criticism over his lack of diplomacy in Europe. Since he agreed to hold an in/out referendum on Europe he has promised to change the EU so that it is better for Britain. But, to the frustration of the rest of Europe, he has yet to make clear exactly what he is seeking.
Apart from the other 27 members of the bloc being hesitant about making changes at the behest of just one country which is threatening to leave, Cameron is in a bind. If he sets out what he wants and it is not ambitious enough for his Eurosceptics, he could face a revolt and possibly lose his very slender parliamentary majority.
If he makes demands that go too far for other countries and has to give ground in negotiations, he will be open to accusations that he has failed to change Europe so that it is better for Britain.
The logical next step, at least for Eurosceptics, is that he would have to campaign to leave in the referendum.
One way or the other, he looks certain to have a large swathe of his own party, including a good number of cabinet members, campaign for an exit. That can only make it more likely that Britain will leave.
But the outcome is not a foregone conclusion by any means. Opinion polls have shown large fluctuations over recent years.
Much will depend on the context of the vote. If the migration crisis is still going on or the euro crisis has reignited when the vote takes place, a vote to leave is much more likely.
It is impossible to say at this juncture which way it will go, but it can be said with certainty that Britain will become less great if its people vote for isolation.