Sunday, 13 February 2011

National decline? Could be a lot better than the alternative

It’s a curious fact that’s not well known outside Sweden that one of its Kings spent time as a prisoner of the Turks.

Is this just something you might find useful in a pub quiz? Bear with me: it’s more relevant to our lives than you might imagine.

I was born into a nation in decline, in so far as power on the world scene defines what a nation is really about. As a child I admired stamps with the Queen’s head on them, marked ‘Gold Coast’, but overprinted ‘Ghana’. That’s how recent the loss of Britain’s dominance in Africa was. Our atlases at school, a little out of date as all good school atlases always are, still showed great tracts of the world in pink to identify them as British possessions.

As a student I heard the radical politician Tony Benn qualify England as the last colony of the British Empire. Unusually for Benn, he was spot on in that judgement: we lived in England as though we were the core of an Empire though the imperial dream was all but over. Dreams can often be nightmares, and in those days we had one more to go through, a colonial war as vicious and cruel as those we fought, in my lifetime, in Malaya, Kenya, Aden or Cyprus: the low-intensity but heartbreakingly drawn out conflict in Northern Ireland.

England stopped being the last imperial possession only in 1997 with the formation of its first post-colonial government, made up predominantly of people with no direct connection with the Second World War, the final great combat into which Britain led its Empire. It was no coincidence that it was this government that brought peace to Northern Ireland, a legacy for which Tony Blair would have been admired for generations and of which he could have been justly proud, had he not rather spoiled it by launching into a new military adventure in the Middle East.

As it waned over the decades, there was a constant refrain that Britain ‘punched above its weight’, an admission that its weight was no longer what it had been. The wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-nineteenth century was by the late twentieth an also-ran economically – well behind not just the United States but also Japan and Germany, the defeated powers of the Second World War, and even at different times behind France and Italy (the latter talked with great pride of ‘Il Sorpasso’, the overtaking – it was short lived but dramatic while it lasted).

The subject of decline is once again in the news. In part this reflects the success of the film The King’s Speech. The film is brilliantly written, directed and performed; it gives a powerful insight into life-distorting disability and the value of friendship in overcoming it. To enjoy it you have, however, to forget about certain uncomfortable historic facts over which the film draws a veil, such as George VI’s appalling attitude towards the Jews of Germany.

A great part of the film’s success in this country is down to nostalgia. To many people the film evokes a time of glory when things were better than they are today. They forget that for the few pukka sahibs on their elephants, or district commissioners determining the fate of thousands of African villagers from their folding tables under the baobab trees, or the white-suited gents in Raffles bar being treated with the deference due to Englishmen from mere natives, there were millions at home struggling with unemployment, thousands on the Jarrow hunger marches, millions more forced to give up their lives in two world wars to settle other and much wealthier men’s quarrels.

The price of national grandeur.

Which takes back to the Swedish King.

Charles XII reigned over Sweden when it was one of the Great Powers of Europe. To defend and extend his possessions, Charles waged wars in Poland, Germany and Russia. Against the Russian Tsar he fought his way all the way down to Poltava in modern day Ukraine, a hell of a sight closer to the Black Sea than to the Baltic, in a classic campaign of overseas imperial ambition.

It was massively overblown ambition. He was crushingly defeated and had to flee into exile in the Ottoman Empire, in modern-day Moldova. He was treated with respect and the Ottoman court subsidised his lavish lifestyle until his constant political intriguing and the conflict between his readiness to incur debts with local traders and his reluctance to pay them, led to serious trouble and soon he found himself in Constantinople under house arrest.

Get a map out. Locate Stockholm. Locate Istanbul. And wonder.

He got around, that Charles
Eventually he made it back to Sweden, crossing the continent on horseback in fifteen days, which was going some. He limited his further campaigns to giving the Norwegians a bad time, unsuccessfully on both attempts, the second of which cost him his life.

Now came the moment of key Swedish genius. The politicians met and took a decision that this whole imperial adventure had been a terrible waste of time, lives and treasure. The game simply wasn’t worth the candle. Sweden consciously chose to give it up for ever.

So they went through a process of decolonising themselves, just as we’re having to in Britain. And need to in France. Maybe even in Spain and Germany. And – dare I say it – will relatively soon be forced to in the United States too.

No doubt the Swedes had their moments of nostalgia as we did, with books, poems and paintings harking back to a mythical golden age where we have films. And why not? A little nostalgia isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t indulge in it too much or confuse it with anything that really matters.

Nostalgia for glory: the battle of Poltava imagined 17 years later
Above all Sweden concentrated on the slow process that would eventually make it what it is today, a society in which those who most need it are properly looked after, where religions coexist, where schools are equipped for teaching and hospitals for delivering care.

Funnily enough, we in Britain have moved that way too since the imperial pretensions eased, but we’ve got a long way to go yet. In the most brutal economic terms, Sweden has GDP per head of nearly $48,000, Britain some $36,000.

The lesson? Remember the glory of Charles XII. Make and enjoy films about him. But if you’re sensible, when you get out of the cinema, emulate his successors and not him. They understood that the important thing is to get a life.

Things are so much more fun when you do.


Anonymous said...

An excellent blog indeed! Full of surprising facts. I find myself in agreement with most of your analyses and conclusions.


PS. Don't share your jaundiced view of Benn though!

Anonymous said...

i'm only sending a second comment because I hate reading "1 commentS"


David Beeson said...

Yes, misusing plurals are painful.

When Benn ordered Pressurised Water Reactors during his brief stint in government (as Energy Minister) it made me feel that, as with everyone else, there was a great gap between his rhetoric and his performance - but he made a particular point about his own adherence to principle.

I also had some real trouble understanding whether he was living on the same planet when he described the 1983, which produced a landslide for Thatcherism, as a victory for socialism as the 8 million defeated Labour voters had been expressing support for a genuinely socialist manifesto. If that was a triumph for socialism, a defeat would be grim indeed. In any case, Labour voters weren't specifically voting for that manifesto - a few may have been, the rest were just voting Labour because that's what they do - they're the core vote.

Anyway, overall it left me wondering about how in touch Benn was with any kind of reality that I would recognise...

Awoogamuffin said...

Talking about nostalgia for empire, I've heard several Spaniards saying "the sun never set on the Spanish empire". That's our line, isn't it?

But then I figured that seeing as most European powers had colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, pretty much all of them could make the same claim.

David Beeson said...

I think the Spaniards did beat us to it - both in having the same possessions and in making the statement.

Just one more thing the Brits took over from abroad.

How can a nation that, putting the most positive possible spin on things, absorbed so much from other countries ('stole' would be the less positive view) be so xenophobic these days?