The Commons vote against intervention in Syria is being cast as a pivotal moment. For some, this marks the end of post-imperial delusion: "a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight". For others, this is the baleful legacy of 2003: "The Iraq war scarred the reputation of one prime minister – and now it has poisoned the authority of another". What these two views, the one optimistic (or at least self-consciously realistic) and the other pessimistic, share is the belief that the dominant theme of modern British history is decline. For the centre and left, we have perhaps reached the trough and can now look upwards ("No more pretending, no more posturing"), while for the right, this marks a further diminution (Obama referring to France as the US's "oldest ally" must be exquisitely painful to Atlanticists).
The pessimism of the right might appear odd given the claim, much trumpeted in April, that Margaret Thatcher had arrested the postwar decline in Britain's standing, both at home and abroad. The explanation for this can be glimpsed in George Osborne's comments linking an activist foreign policy to free trade and economic growth: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that". This indicates that there are bigger battles yet to come, notably over the EU, in the tussle between neoliberal big capital and isolationist small capital (UKIP are resolutely against intervention).
"Declinism" has been central to British politics, historiography and literature for well over a century. As the first nation to industrialise, and having acquired the largest mercantile empire ever known, relative decline was inevitable from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and had become obvious to many by the 1870s - i.e. the aftermath of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, which highlighted the inexorable economic and geo-political "catch up" of the USA and Germany. The 1920s and 30s were a period of particular angst, as the growing dominance of America pointed to the coming post-colonial world and the exhaustion/fear of war fuelled self-doubt (Evelyn Waugh was perhaps the key "declinist" writer of the time). In reality, Britain continued to progress throughout the twentieth century in absolute terms, and even in relative terms was nowhere near the bottom half of the field in the "global race". The narrative of decline has always been politically inspired, and much historical debate has centred on the refutation of the more lurid claims of how the country has gone to the dogs.
A famous example of this was the trilogy of works by Correlli Barnett (The Collapse of British Power, The Audit of War and The Lost Victory) that aimed to show how the investment in the postwar welfare state diverted key resources away from economic growth and condemned us to fall behind the rest of Europe, notably Germany. Barnett traced the cause of this error to a change in the values of the governing elite during the nineteenth century - essentially a surfeit of Christian charity replaced the hard-headed pragmatism and expedience of the builders of empire and industry. A variant on this was provided by Martin Wiener (English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980), who identified the problem as the continued social pre-eminence of aristocratic values (anti-industrial and anti-mercantile), which then infected the emerging middle class through gentrification. These are essentially narratives of decadence, and as such have an obvious progenitor in Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Economic histories have tended to oscillate between considerations of Britain's social capability (culture, institutions, skills etc) and growth potential (material conditions, international competition etc). This has led to a variety of claims for the chief cause of decline, ranging from conservative trades unions and poor management, through inappropriate education and the shortcomings of The City and banks. Against this, revisionist historians have shown how Britain remained a leader in technology and innovation, and how postwar welfare spending was actually in line with leading competitors. The truth is that a mono-causal explanation is neat but implausible, and that factors beyond our control (European reconstruction, decolonisation, North Sea oil etc) probably had a greater impact on economic performance than any change in moral sentiment or industrial organisation. We should also remember that political economy trumps macroeconomics, and that vested interests will happily accommodate decline if it protects absolute wealth and relative power.
The finger of blame is often pointed at a cause that reveals contemporary anxieties, thus "union militancy" is in the frame for the 1970s (the oil crisis of 1973 is barely a footnote in the popular tale) and the "bloated public sector" and "skivers" are fingered today. A persistent theme throughout modern British history has been anxiety over education ("declining standards"), which is a proxy for anxiety over social class and the defence of privilege. Another worry has been the physical condition of the poor, though this has shifted from the eugenicist fear of stunted cannon-fodder 100 years ago to the modern class contempt disguised as "healthy eating" advice. Though declinism is a naturally occurring tendency among reactionaries and conservatives, who assume that the world gets worse by the day, it can be found across the political spectrum. Thus the left has adopted much of the vocabulary of declinism in respect of the collapse in wage growth, the erosion of working class solidarity, and the wider fraying of social capital.
Declinism has heavily influenced the tropes of current politics. The right claim that the last government trashed the economy, that we are living beyond our means, and that Britain is "broken". The left claim that over-reliance on finance has left us with a lopsided economy, that under-investment has led to the "decline of manufacturing", and that a government of toffs is incapable of taking us forward (Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall features the Bollinger Club, a thinly disguised satire of the Bullingdon Club). Much of the political reporting of the Syrian vote has been cast explicitly in terms of the decline of Cameron's authority and Miliband's success in arresting his own recent decline. In contrast, when times are good, we swing to the other pole: "cool Britannia" and the "innovation nation". For a supposedly reserved people, we appear to be somewhat bipolar.
The belief in catastrophic decline, and that this was a "sickness" that could be cured (albeit with great difficulty), was particularly prevalent in the late 70s (the diplomat Nicholas Henderson gave a famous valediction in 1979) and helped provide much of the justificatory context for both the Thatcher "revolution" and the eventual neoliberal takeover of Labour. And this highlights an interesting truth, which is that the British have never generally lapsed into defeatism, accepting decline as inescapable and voting for parties that promised to handle it better. The idea that there was ever a policy of "managed decline" is a myth, traceable back to Barnett. The lesson for Cameron and Miliband is that "don't let Labour ruin it" and "a commitment to fiscal responsibility" are equally negative and uninspiring. As Sarah Palin inadvertently revealed, electors like the "hopey, changey thing".
I suspect the Syrian vote will not prove pivotal after all. There is little reason to believe that Labour has given up on intervention in principle, and every reason to believe that the Tory party will rediscover its taste for riding shortgun for the US in practice. Despite making eyes at Hollande, Obama isn't about to transfer the NSA outsource contract from GCHQ to the DGSE. I also suspect that declinism has some mileage yet in the UK as it remains a powerful ideological tool for neoliberalism, justifying the simultaneous shrinking of the state and the privileging of business. As we showed with the bipolar Olympics ("it will be a disaster", "it was a triumph"), what we enjoy most is a damn fine afterglow.