Prime Minister David Cameron’s Christmas message to the Falkland Islanders was as clear as anything Mrs. Thatcher would have said.
Whatever challenges we face in the UK, the British Government’s commitment to the security and prosperity of the overseas territories, including the Falklands, remains undiminished.
”So let me be absolutely clear. We will always maintain our commitment to you on any question of sovereignty. Your right to self-determination is the cornerstone of our policy.
We will never negotiate on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless you, the Falkland Islanders, so wish. No democracy could ever do otherwise.
At the same time, Britain has joined the United States and other European and Arab countries in rattling sabers in the general direction of Iran. These are some large commitments from a country that ranks toward the bottom of the top tier of European economies, and which faces stringent military spending cuts in a series of austerity budgets expected to last through the life of Cameron’s government. With a secessionist party in power in the Scottish parliament promoting a referendum of Scottish independence, Britain could face yet another jolting moment of national decline. Would England be willing or able to honor the promises Britain made? (And would England alone be able to hold onto its permanent seat on the Security Council for long?)
Fortunately for Britain, Argentina is not a rising military power and in any case President Fernandez seems more interested in distracting the voters’ attention from a faltering economic program than in starting a shooting war she would be very unlikely to win.
Nevertheless, Britain must make some hard choices moving forward. It remains a trading nation with global interests, and the re-emergence of the City as a global financial center has brought the UK back into the center of world affairs. Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks, Chinese and Thai businessmen, American investment bankers and African political and economic magnates continue to flock to London, bringing plenty of money with them. More than the memories of a long vanished empire, it is the global range of the interests concentrated in Britain that drives British prime ministers towards ambitious foreign policy goals despite the limits of British power.
It can be an uncomfortable role, both for the country and for the politicians. Tony Blair’s high profile support of the invasion of Iraq cut short his time in office. Gordon Brown’s effort to orchestrate a global economic response to the financial crisis through the G-20 exposed the limits of his and Britain’s influence. Britain’s failure to carve out the kind of role that it seeks in the European Union has weakened a series of British governments, including Mr. Cameron’s.
Although it is passing through a rough patch, Britain seems to have brighter prospects in the 21st century than some of its EU partners. Its population is growing; it has reinvented itself as a global investment hub; and it avoided the euro. Despite tensions, it manages to integrate immigrants with considerably more success than some of its neighbors. If it plays its cards well it may yet emerge from the current European turmoil in good shape.
One of the central dynamics that made Britain great for so long still seems to be working. Financial and economic crises recur in healthy capitalist economies. When these crises come, some countries that have only reluctantly embraced a capitalist system (and usually done so poorly and half heartedly), see the crisis as proof that capitalism is a flop, and lurch toward “alternative models” that generally lead to stagnation and the capture of the state by rent-seeking elites spouting empty populist slogans. Think Argentina. Think Greece.
Britain is one of the countries that historically responds to crises of capitalism by doubling down: seeking reforms that make capitalism work more effectively rather than trying to hobble and block it. Between World War Two and Maggie Thatcher Britain lost its way, bumbling through decades of decline and well intentioned but hopeless efforts to find some other way to grow.
Whatever ones views of specific steps the Cameron-Clegg coalition has taken along the way, the overall thrust of this government is clearly to facilitate rather than hobble capitalist development. History suggests that some of the government’s policies will work, some won’t, and some won’t make a difference either way. The specific outcomes are important, but they matter less in the long run than the continued commitment of the British to the core values of a liberal, capitalist society. If the government can hold onto the Union, manage the relationship with Europe, and create the conditions for a new era of growth as this crisis like all previous crises is overcome, then Britain will continue to recover and, among other things, the kelpies in the Falklands can sleep soundly at night.