Remainers lament a “little Britain” drifting off into introspective irrelevance, whilst Brexiteers grieve for the once great seat of an empire now captured by pusillanimous civil servants and Europhile elites.
I disagree. Brexit or no Brexit, Britain is an exceptional, powerful, vibrant nation. Essentially a kingdom united since 1603 when King James VI, King of Scots, inherited the English throne, Britain’s foundations can withstand a referendum.
This matters. Like going for a job interview, so in the game of international relations arrogance is bad but confidence is good. A spirit of optimism, when legitimate, is also helpful at home: self-effacing Brits have historically eschewed nationalism but enjoyed a quiet patriotism.
There are four reasons to be confident. First, the United Kingdom has a long and robust history, wary of radical change but always slowly adapting to the times. Parliamentary democracy emanated from these isles in the eighteenth century and has since been exported to thirty-eight of the fifty European sovereign states and many more beyond. The now clichéd ‘carry-on’ spirit saw us through the Napoleonic Wars, the industrial revolution, both World Wars, the rise and fall of the British Empire and countless economic crises.
Significant as Britain’s exit from the European Union is, it pales into comparison against the existential historic challenges of a century’s bloodshed in Ireland, the Great Depression, appeasement, and literally rebuilding Britain post-1945. Our institutions – including the NHS, BBC, and Whitehall – have weathered storms before.
Second, Britain’s art, culture and sport remain second to none. Listen to the charts in the United States, South America, South-East Asia, or really anywhere and enjoy (or not, depending on your taste) the dominance of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Calvin Harris. In literature, J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ is the best-selling book series in history, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a world-respected masterpiece and Robert Harris pens intensely popular historical thrillers. On the tele, the BBC’s Sherlock adaptation is a global addiction and Game of Thrones would be lost without British acting talent. In cinema, British actors regularly dominate awards season and, collectively, the UK’s film, TV and music industries have grown by 72% since 2014.
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Meanwhile, Team GB came second in the 2016 Rio Olympics, Britain won the 2015 tennis David Cup, and England’s women reached the semi-finals of this year’s football European Championship.
Third, Britain still has enormous clout on the world stage. A member of the G7, NATO, and the UN Security Council, Theresa May and whoever follows her as PM will still have many important tables to sit around. A significant military gives Foreign Office diplomats outsized influence across the globe and the aid budget contributes to humanitarian, civil, health and economic development around the world.
As global conditions become more volatile, exercising this influence prudently but assertively will be important. For example, Britain was one of six signatories to the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, and may well have to show global leadership to keep heads cool on the North Korean question.
Finally, the people of these isles are exceptional. Whether the next in a long line of Britons or first-generation immigrants, the British share qualities of resilience, politeness, and stoicism that are remarkable and surprisingly rare internationally.
The challenges ahead are real. Navigating Brexit is not for the faint of heart and leaders should not lose sight of other issues such as stagnating real wages, securing the future of the NHS and dealing with an ageing population. But we shall overcome. It remains an enormous privilege in the lottery of life to be born British.
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff at the British government’s National Infrastructure Commission.