As Greece gave way to Rome, so Britain would give way to the United States, so Harold Macmillan is misquoted as saying. Britain’s imperial decline after the War is not in doubt, and the Suez debacle was a psychological turning point. Suez was 65 years ago though. Time is turning and the world has been transformed.
Macmillan’s words were actually said not of Suez but during the War, when he already realised, as he could hardly fail to see, that the United States had become a military and naval power of overwhelming strength, through that country’s suddenly acquired wealth, and that we had entered the age of the American empire. He told Richard Crossman at Allied Forces HQ:
‘We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in this American empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great big vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues, but also more corrupt. We must run A.F.H.Q. as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.’
If Macmillan thought the Romans needed help running an empire, he was unfair to them – as Virgil says:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.
The Americans are not Romans – they really cannot run an empire, too fixed as they are on their own norms, which are not those of the wider world however much Hollywood the nations imbibe. They can however govern themselves well, and that is the main requirement for any nation. They are still eye-wateringly wealthy and accordingly strong.
Maybe that impression of unlimited opulence is just in the eyes of an outsider though. Here in Britain every penny of government spending is resented and for all the cutting of fat, and wails over every local budget not renewed, the government still runs deeper into debt day by day, while in America they seem to have billions of dollars to spend on military, engineering and spacefaring projects of which we cannot dream in the constraints of the government purse. The NASA budget alone this year came to £16.5 billion.
Actually though, £16.5 billion is well within the sort of budgets the British government does spend freely. It is a fraction of the total estimated HS2 budget, and that is just a single railway line (that the owners should be paying for anyway), albeit over several years. That is not to say that £16.5 billion space spending should be reproduced here, but it is perfectly able to be done. Ours is not a small, poor country. We just choose to run our government as if it were one, because elsewhere in government they are overbudgeting on touchy-feely things and spaffing it all up the wall.
Those huge marble halls and wide, sunlit spaces of the American capital contrast with the cramped streets and corridors of Westminster, but it is only show: the soaring Capitol was built when America was still a middling power, erected by toiling slaves, built big because there was unlimited space to play with. The White House is impressive, making 10 Downing Street look like a cramped flat, but it is no better than a hundred country houses in the Home Counties, or Leinster House in Dublin from which it was modelled. The Maryland sunshine hides what is actually quite ordinary.
The American Empire of the mind is still real, and that land is still the wealthiest in the world. The sickening feeling of decline is unavoidable though. The pioneers opened up the wilderness between the oceans, but their children are abandoning it. A society built on freedom, individuality and enterprise grew rich as a result, but the worm is at the root of those very qualities. The entrepreneurs still have fire in them, and the land on which to build, but the children of those who grew rich from their efforts are turning on them.
As the Greeks gave way to Rome, so the British Empire gave way to America’s dominance. If they cannot maintain it though, as in time they cannot, then there is a conclusion:
As Rome gave way to Byzantium, so America must give way to a re-emergent, international Britain. That is, if Britain can shoulder the burden and not fall prey to the fatal flaws of the Empire of Constantinople.