Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

My English friend first noticed the tendency years ago when UK football hooligans began wearing the red and white Cross of St. George to matches in preference to the Union Jack. The latter ensign dated from 1606, when James I ordered the blue and white St. Andrew’s cross of the flag of Scotland to be sewn onto the English banner to represent his dual monarchy. For the next hundred years the striking new design was seen mainly on the masts of his British majesty’s ships at sea.

Not until 1688 did the English parliament get into the act, when its members invited the Dutchman William of Orange and his English wife to become King William III and Queen Mary II, fending off the restoration of hierarchical Catholic governance under James II.  Crowned in 1685, James was chased off the throne and out of the country in 1688.

This was the “Glorious Revolution,” long cherished by the English as supposedly peaceful, aristocratic, and consensual. It has been persuasively reinterpreted recently as “violent, popular, and divisive” by Yale historian Steve Pincus and extensively illuminated by Deidre McCloskey in her Bourgeois Trilogy as the first truly modern revolution, precursor to the American and French experiences.

This was modernization based on a Dutch model, not a French one, writes Pincus. It included a broad array of inventions associated with becoming a nation-state: republican governance; elected representatives of the citizenry; the rule of law; bourgeois values of various sorts, especially the fundamental and widespread curiosity we now describe as “scientific”; and, not incidentally, the strong army and first-rate navy required by a nation bent on global domination The Union Jack became Britain’s official flag only after both parliaments passed Acts of Union in 1707.

Elizabeth, England’s first Protestant queen, had begun her rule in 1558. For the next 250 years, Britain battled Spain, the Netherlands and France for control of Europe, North America, and the sea, finally emerging victorious in 1815. Long before, writers including Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith had begun comparing its hegemony to that of the Roman Empire.

The Victorian era, broadly construed, lasted for a century, but as early as 1890 it was becoming clear that the empire had become overextended.  In The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline 1895-1905 (Princeton, 1977), Princeton historian Aaron Friedberg argued that the Boer War in South Africa exhausted Britain’s willingness to tax itself to pay to maintain its status as the world’s dominant power.

Two long and bitter wars with Germany in the twentieth century further sapped Britain’s human, military, and financial capacity.  An attempted military intervention, with the aid of France and Israel, against Egypt in Suez in 1956 succeeded militarily but failed utterly politically and diplomatically. Gradually its naval forces were pulled back from Singapore. Hong Kong remained a commercial enclave long after it ceased to be a naval strong point; its sovereignty and governance was handed over to China in 1997.

What remained, until last week, was Britain’s capacity for moral leadership.  Britain had declined to join European Coal and Steel Community in the years after World War II.  French president Charles de Gaulle then fended off its attempt to join the European Economic Community (the “common market”) that emerged in the late 1950s. Britain finally entered the EEC in 1973, but opted out of the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which abolished borders among member states. Open immigration from Europe came with the landmark Maastricht Treaty of 1992.  Subsequent treaties have extended the principle of central European government from its seat in Brussels, and expanded membership to twenty-eight member states.

What happened last week was not just Britain’s retreat from Europe; it was the abandonment of the project that began in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a dream of empire which turned out be a spectacular success.  Britain now will return to being the island nation celebrated by Shakespeare as “this fortress built by Nature for herself/ against infection and the hand of war.”  None of us who were raised on this story can be less than sad at the news; those who have labored in its service are heartbroken.

What happens now in Britain? Martin Wolf, economics columnist of the Financial Times, put it succinctly: Britain has prospered inside the EU but it will not do as well outside.  It seems doubtful that London can remain the same immensely powerful global financial hub it has become – central banks like the Bank of England have power only by dint of governments’ authority to tax. Elites are fuming; they can hardly believe their comfortable way of life has been put at risk; so are the young, who voted overwhelmingly (75% of 18-24 year olds. 56% of 25-50 year olds) to remain.  Can the vote be reversed?  Apparently just possibly.  Here is Oxford’s Simon Wren-Lewis on the outlook.

There is a distinct possibility that Scotland will choose to remain in the European Union. In that case the Union Jack may actually come apart. Those ancient flags will reappear:  the azure Saltire, worn by Scottish soldiers fighting in France in the fourteenth century; the red-on-white St. George’s cross, brought back in the twelfth century from Malta after the Second Crusade.

Meanwhile, what about the rest of the world?  That is a much more complicated story. You can expect to hear plenty more about it in the coming months, beginning with the other governmental organization headquartered in Brussels — the sprawling military-industrial complex known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

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EP will turn next week to developments at the recent History of Economics Society meetings.

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