Courtesy Reuters

Reports of Britain's Death . . .

"In the middle of the twentieth century," declared Richard Cobden, nineteenth-century apostle of free trade, "there will be only two great powers in the world, the United States and Russia, and they will overshadow all the rest." Alexis de Tocqueville had, of course, said much the same thing at much the same time. But the Frenchman's prophecy, it must be remembered, came a generation after his own country's decisive defeat at Waterloo. The Englishman's, though less familiar, is in a sense more remarkable; for it was made in the heyday of Britain's preëminence in world affairs.

This preëminence, though not quite so unchallenged or protracted as nostalgia now tempts us to think, was based upon three material advantages. The first of these was that we were the pioneers of industrial capitalism. Technological ingenuity of a small handful of Scots and Englishmen, combined with an intrepid pursuit of opulence on the part of the entrepreneurial class, made Britain for a time "the workshop of the world." The second of our advantages was the existence of the British Empire. Though romantically alluded to as a "white man's burden," the colonies provided a large and open market for our manufactured goods and significantly augmented our military and diplomatic strength. To these industrial and imperial advantages was added, thirdly, the supremacy of the Royal Navy. This not merely safeguarded our strategic and trade routes in all the world's oceans, but made our island a fortress-as impregnable to Napoleon's flat-bottomed boats as it had been to the Spanish Armada.

Cobden was not alone in discerning the transient nature of these special advantages. "It is a delusion," said the future Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli in 1838, "to suppose that the Continent will suffer Britain to be the workshop for the world." Other nations, outside as well as inside Europe, were bound to apply and to improve upon the techniques of industrialization which we had pioneered. Many of them-particularly the United States and, later, Russia-would overshadow the

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