For more than a quarter of a century, at least since the failure of the Suez Canal venture in 1956, Britain has been preoccupied with a sense of its national decline. To some extent the country’s demise as a world power was inevitable. Britain was bound to (divest itself of its empire; to have attempted to hang on against all the forces of history would have been a far worse course. Nor could Britain possibly have maintained the almost equal partnership with the United States that it thought it enjoyed when the two countries found themselves fighting side by side in the Second World War.
That such a transformation in international status has had a disorienting effect is hardly surprising. When Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman, remarked in 1962 that "Britain has lost an empire and not found a role," British susceptibilities were hurt to the quick. To be attacked unfairly is one thing; to be told the unpleasant truth by an old friend is much more painful.
This fall in prestige and world power was accompanied by a drop in Britain’s relative economic performance, a deterioration partially masked by a rise in absolute living standards for most of the period. Most British people, nevertheless, are uneasily aware that other countries have been doing much better. A quarter of a century ago Britain still had one of the highest standards of living in the world; now it is one of the poorer members of the European Community.
From time to time elegant arguments are constructed to suggest that the British really prefer things this way, that lower material rewards are the price for the idyllic British way of life. They may be. But they are not a price that the British are happy about paying. Everything of consequence that has happened in British politics in recent years—Thatcherism, the Labour Party’s lurch to the left, the birth of the Social Democratic Party, public fervor in the Falklands
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