Richard Vinen: Imperial Dreams Still Haunt Britain

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Vinen teaches history at King’s College London and is the author of Thatcher’s Britain.

George Orwell wrote that the loss of empire would reduce England to a “cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live on herrings and potatoes”. It has not turned out like that. The British live better than ever before. Herring is a pungent delicacy enjoyed by the Borough Market-going classes.
In spite of this, it is widely held to be political suicide for any British leader to suggest that their country might have a future that does not involve “greatness”. Indeed, the only politician to have taken such a stance was that great kamikaze of the backbenches, Enoch Powell.
Even Harold Macmillan, who was particularly qualified to understand the great sweep of history, managed to feign outrage when it was suggested that Britain was no longer a first-rate power. The party conferences will probably feature calls to “put the Great back in Great Britain”. But does anyone believe that Britain can be great again and does anyone, really, think it matters?..

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