Ninety years ago, Lord Curzon--an intellectual grandee and holder of high offices, including viceroy of India and foreign secretary--opined that, without its empire,
England from having been the arbiter will sink at best into the inglorious playground of the world. Our antiquities, our natural beauties, our mansion houses and parks will attract a crowd of wandering pilgrims. People will come to see us just as they climbed the Acropolis at Athens or ascend the waters of the Nile. England will become a sort of glorified Belgium.
This, it has turned out, was unduly pessimistic. While the Empire is all but gone, Britain remains one of the eight or so countries, grouped in the second rank behind the United States, that retain some world role. The United Kingdom's status in the world owes less to its nuclear weapons and permanent seat at the UN Security Council than to its prosperity on the edge of Europe, and its central historical and cultural position in the English-speaking world which it founded. In an international political universe of some 180 countries, Britain's status is not an unenviable one, and from this platform of deserved respect it is possible to envision several alternative courses for Britain's future.
At any rate, it should be possible. But the discussion of the British future today evidences almost no hint of open horizons. Instead, the British national imagination is staggering in a sludge of inevitability about a progressively tighter European Union. While there is virtually no enthusiasm in Britain for plunging deeper into such a Union--all the polls show a profound disenchantment with the Brussels bureaucracy, a deep reticence about monetary union, and growing skepticism about the economic implications of a British future in Europe--the general sense is that it will happen anyway.