Every decade or so, the UK finds itself in crisis. These are the moments that open up rare and brief periods of reflection on the decline of the country’s geopolitical relevance and of the British state. Then the gates close, the crisis diminishes, and an overpowered financial services sector—combined with the prestigious longevity of British institutions—cushions the downward trends until the next crisis. The British governing and commercial classes may well vampirically draw on financial and institutional soft power for at least another century. But the cumulative effect of these moments makes it increasingly difficult to deny the British elite’s profound inability to prevent national decline.
British institutions exert impressive amounts of soft power for a tiny island nation. One can think of the country as playing the role of an Italian city-state in the fourteenth century: it capitalizes on historic cultural prestige, educates the children of elites from its former empire, and serves as a playground for wealth and status games while not really producing anything of hard value.
The overall trajectory becomes obvious when you look at outcomes in productivity, investment, capacity, research and development, growth, quality of life, GDP per capita, wealth distribution, and real wage growth measured by unit labor cost. All are either falling or stagnant. Reporting from the Financial Times has claimed that at current levels, the UK will be poorer than Poland in a decade, and will have a lower median real income than Slovenia by 2024. Many provincial areas already have lower GDPs than Eastern Europe.
While all of Europe is getting poorer and weaker as the twenty-first century progresses, the UK is unique in its relative incapacity and unwillingness to find solutions in comparison to peer nations like Germany and France. This is a process that has been gathering pace for centuries, stretching back to trends that began in the 1700s even as its empire was still expanding.
In essence, the distinctively innovative and moralistic culture that distinguished England from Europe, most fully expressed in Puritanism and Cromwellian republicanism, flowed into America’s east coast elites even as it was crushed by the aristocracy at home. Britain’s version of the modernizing class—represented elsewhere by Washington, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Bismarck, the Meiji Emperor, Lenin, Mao, and Nasser—even arose far earlier, during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. It died a premature death, unable to provide the refounding moment for Britain that occurred in 1776 in America, 1789 in France, 1868 in Japan, and 1949 in China.
Because of its status as an initially advantaged first mover, the UK now has a fortified elite content to live on the rents of bygone ages. Its social order is constituted by the cultural legacy of the old aristocracy, underwritten by London financial brokers, and serviced by a shrinking middle class. Its administrative and political classes developed a culture of amateurism, uninterested in either the business of classically informed generalism or that of deep technical specialism. The modern result is a system that incentivizes speculative, consultative, and financial service work over manufacturing, research, and production.
To the extent that the UK is governed by a partnership between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, it is an aristocracy that is not aristocratic and a bourgeoisie that is not productive. The old administrative upper class no longer wields power through land or patronage. The commercial middle class produces little of innovative value, its most prestigious sector being the servicing of other states’ surplus funds through family offices and merchant banks in London.
Despite being the hegemon of the industrial age, Britain never developed the mechanisms that allowed the U.S. and Germany to overtake it in the late nineteenth century in chemistry, transportation, labor productivity, and organizational methods. London’s first-mover benefits turned into profound disadvantages. It is not that Britain is sick, so much as that British elites are like aged pensioners: overly successful in their heyday, they are now drawing down their last investments and savings while letting the country house crumble.
Many in the British government knew about the possibility of immense decline as far back as 1902, and yet made no attempt to change course that might risk the political order itself. It may take another hundred years, and the total breakup of the United Kingdom itself, for the country to feel the full effects of elite dissolution.
A Stalled Revival
Despite the public silence, these problems have been quietly talked about in the ante-rooms of Downing Street for over a century. During the zenith of empire at the tail-end of the 1800s, a number of individuals began to realize that a lag in industrial and scientific development had led to the UK having relatively slower GDP growth rates than Germany and America. By 1902, systematic attempts began to identify the causes of British decline and chart an exit path before a correction became impossible. Early attempts by the colonialist Cecil Rhodes and the statesman Lord Milner to reform a generalist imperial administrative class did not yield results.
The Fabian socialist couple Sidney and Beatrice Webb organized one of the most prominent attempts at reform in a dining club called the Coefficients. It brought together a cross-section of Edwardian elites from Conservative paternalism, Liberal imperialism, and Fabian socialism. The group included the early geopolitician Halford John Mackinder, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the science fiction author H.G Wells, and Lord Milner, as well as several businessmen, military officers, scientists, and MPs. In the end, this cross-section merely replicated the standoffs that were paralyzing the broader British elite: unable to unite on the question of the empire, the Coefficients dissolved in 1909. Wells would later reflect on the fundamental problem they all recognized in his biography:
Gradually the belief in the possible leadership of England had been deflated, by the economic development of America and the boldness of Germany. The reign of Victoria, so prosperous, had produced habits of indolence. As a people we had got out of training…our universities had not kept pace with the new time; our ruling class, protected in its advantages …was easy-going and profoundly lazy…”Efficiency” was felt to be rather priggish.
The pressures of the following two world wars forced the British state to retain a high level of capacity and an ability to mobilize effectively. As a result, it was not state capacity, but economic and scientific productivity that most instantiated a broader decline. The scientific luminary Sir Henry Tizard, who was connected to the political sphere through his friendship with Churchill’s scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann, told the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1948 that:
It cannot be argued that in quality and quantity of scientific and industrial research [the Americans] excel us. But they possess a higher average standard of technology than we do, and a much higher proportion of men of high scientific education in the executive control of industry…[an] expansion in research [will] not produce the hoped-for result unless there [is] a simultaneous expansion in technological education.
Tizard led the short-lived Defence Research Policy Committee (DRPC), a group that directed the scientific strategy of the British military into the Cold War. The Committee ran from 1947 until 1963. However, its advice proved to have little effect on decisions of state. Tizard, within years of the DRPC’s foundation, faced pressure to move funding from long-term research to short-term military questions. In 1951, Tizard angrily lamented that “no item on the present [DRPC] program is a new application of science. Nothing at all. We have no surprises to offer.”
As a result, the problems outlined by Tizard had grown worse by the 1960s. In response, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made several limited attempts to revive British productivity under the 1963 “White Heat of Technology” program and the creation of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC). Led by the head of the textiles firm Courtaulds, Sir Frank Kearton, the IRC acted as a state “merchant bank” with a long-term industrial planning remit to force mergers between medium-sized manufacturing industries with comparative export advantages. The idea was to force British industry to pursue economies of scale, creating a mass consumer and high-technology manufacturing base.
While the IRC showed some promise, briefly raising GDP growth, it was soon overtaken by both spending cuts and an international marketplace characterized by high inflation, energy scarcity, the abolition of the Bretton Woods system, and London’s entry into the European Community. Britain’s diminished hold on energy resources across the world, brought on by the end of formal and informal empire, also helped constrain social-democratic fixes whose funding required large surpluses to draw on.
On the 27th of October, 1970, the new Conservative chancellor Anthony Barber announced the IRC’s closure. In response, the Labour MP, electrical engineer, and oil executive Raymond Carter spoke in defense of the IRC in the House of Commons:
Every American worker is backed up by twice the amount of capital that is behind the British worker…the amount of capital backing a German worker is 50 percent more. It is the critical problem of capital investment that bedevils our nation…The truth is that we needed the IRC 30 years ago.
Carter’s analysis that the UK’s last chance to reverse course was in 1940—then 30 years ago—rings true. The Second World War, and its subsequent increase in debt and decolonization, proved to be an irreversible moment that British elites and institutions could not overcome. In effect, postwar technocratic fixes like the DRPC and the IRC were doomed operations. What fatally constrained them was not just short-term budget cuts, but a fundamentally changed world.
The hope that the UK might still escape its geopolitical chains and reverse its decline persists. When former Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings became Boris Johnson’s new Chief of Staff, he was frustrated by the same problems these acronymed organizations had tried to address. In response, he put together a blog post in 2020 calling for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts [and] assorted weirdos.” Cummings’s idea was to create a corrective to the legacy of “confident public school bluffers” in the administrative class by recruiting “true wild cards, artists, [and] people who never went to university.”
Cummings believed that deep technical specialism should replace a system where “people are shuffled such that they do not acquire expertise.” While his critique of the British administrative world was comparatively strong, his assumption that the British political system would provide enough consistency to allow for long-termism was flawed. Factional infighting led to multiple changes in government in only a few short years.
Despite branding himself as a clear-eyed realist, Cummings also critically underestimated the geopolitical and economic constraints that any radically reformed civil service would work under. Having tried to reform the system from the inside, he was spat back out by it. In a telling turn of the screw, Cummings suggested a larger idea months before his departure: a state-run “Crown Consultancy” to replace the £2.6 billion pounds of outsourced spending going to PwC, McKinsey, and others—including hiring consultants to consult on hiring fewer consultants. Within weeks of his departure, the idea was scaled back to a remit of “advising on consultancy spending” rather than primary work.
In the end, every technocratic policy fix has been recuperated into managed decline. Buoyed up by soft power and high-paying financial services, even the UK’s would-be reformers drastically underestimate the human capital problem that affects every layer of society. Despite comparing itself to the U.S. and the European Union, it lacks their productive power and highly skilled populations. Without London’s financial clout, the economic shrinking now predicted by the IMF would doubtless be far worse. After a multi-generational failure by the British state to assess its hard constraints and build up a materially productive social order, its elites appear to have fundamentally lost interest in governance.
The Sociology of a Synthetic Elite
Britain’s culture of governance expresses the culture and priorities of its political and administrative elite. Questions about that culture are ultimately questions of elite sociology. Entrance into the British elite has slowly become more meritocratic over the generations in a formal sense, with the imperial Chinese exam system influencing the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. This in turn led to the removal of informal patronage structures. But an informal system of social selection persisted long into the twentieth century, minimizing the potential costs to institutional memory and group social engineering. British institutions continued to prioritize a humanist and professional elite in running a vast industrial, scientific, and commercial empire.
What differentiated the British elite of this time from most of Europe was the embrace of capitalist production by much of its aristocracy. Despite disputes on protectionism, the emergent middle class never experienced the same level of conflict with the nobility as their French or American counterparts. Compare, for instance, the backgrounds of two elite class premiers: George W. Bush and David Cameron. Bush’s patrilineal great-grandfather Samuel P. Bush established the family’s political dominance through technical education and the management of a firm that manufactured steel railway parts.
In contrast, Cameron’s father, paternal grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Oxford-educated partners in the stockbroker’s firm Panmure Gordon & Co, while another Sir Ewen Cameron was chairman of HSBC. His maternal grandfather came from a family of minor titled gentry and military officers. The differentiating factor between the two major factions of the British elite was whether they derived rents from aristocratic land holdings or professional-class financial speculation. Neither built their fortunes on the industrial basis that enriched the Bush family and many of their American peers.
The British analogs of the Bush clan—manufacturing and infrastructure-owning families—were often nonconformist protestants excluded from the Church of England and thus from educational routes into administration and politics. Instead, they either collaborated with the state at a distance or sought to join it by phasing out manufacturing and using the profits to buy land and professional education. It was not until the late nineteenth century, by which time the UK was falling behind the U.S. and Germany, that non-elite merchants like the Liberal MP, Unitarian, and screw manufacturer Joseph Chamberlain found a way into political office.
The resulting British state was over-geared towards non-productive economic rent-seeking. In effect, Britain didn’t have an incentive to chase development for survival, because it was the dominant power of early industrialization. Consequently, it never produced an elite whose primary base of power and wealth was industrial production, and which thus had a strong stake in developing and maintaining an industrial society.
Religious and social exclusion from Oxford and Cambridge meant that the middle classes did not share the generalist education of most British elites. The avenue into power for this synthetic class had for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries been the Oxford literae humaniores course in classical Greek and Latin, often supplemented by study for civil service exams focused on British constitutional history. These exams, both old and new, have produced a generalist administrative class with institutional and humanistic knowledge but little technical skill. Even after such restrictions were lifted, however, tensions kept rising between the old preference for general education and the bourgeois need for technical expertise.
In 1920, Oxford launched its Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) course to create a syncretic technocratic-generalist pathway into the civil service. Herbert James Paton, a contemporary university administrator and philosopher, criticized PPE as “an ineffective modern version of literae humaniores…for the softer man.”
The PPE course remains dominant in British public life. I spoke to Matthias Brinkmann, a German political philosopher who was a PPE tutor at Merton College, Oxford between 2012 and 2017. “The whole place still exudes a miasma that it is the training ground of the British elite,” he told me. “Germany has nothing remotely comparable. There is no social consensus about which the best universities are…it’s a very flat hierarchy.”
I wondered if the course itself offered anything of value to those taking it. “I think people vastly overestimate the content of the course,” Brinkmann said. “Before PPE, you had classics. Part of me thinks the content could be anything. To a large degree, it’s a coordination game. If the British elite were recruited from biochemistry, then that would be the course we’d be talking about.” The dream of PPE was a half-hearted attempt to mimic the tight technocratic funnel system of French grand ecoles and German civil service. But it wasn’t backed up with the political will to reform the elite cultivation structure itself or by any outside influence from reformist cadres and leaders. Beneath the modernistic façade lay the same cultivation structures active in the last half of the nineteenth century.
While teaching PPE, Brinkmann saw changing incentives when it came to careers in public service: “What has shifted, at least since the financial crisis of 2008, is that people no longer want to go into politics. Instead, it’s finance and consultancy companies. You get a very small minority of students who want to go into the civil service…The civil service has lost its social status.” If brilliant Oxford and Cambridge figures like J.M. Keynes and Isaiah Berlin found themselves in the twenty-first century, it is unclear why they would still opt for government work instead of leveraging their intellects in the private sector. It’s usually difficult to narrow down just what incentives or elements of education motivate those who still dedicate themselves to public service. I decided that the best way to find out was to start talking to those who did.
“People from my background 30 years ago did go into the city,” I was told by Arthur Snell, a former diplomat who went on to work at an intelligence firm founded by Christopher Steele, the former Russia desk man at MI6. “But many joined the army and foreign office. Those professions were seen as part of the cultural norm…The British—or more narrowly English—elite, I think have largely given up on the idea of public service, with the possible exception of one or two bits of the army that are still posh.”
Jame Kane, a former civil servant in the Cabinet Office trade secretariat who now works on trade policy, told me that global competition and the influx of money into financial services weakened incentives towards civil service: “[They] have inflated the cost of living to a point that it would be politically impossible to raise public sector wages to a level required to fund an expected upper-middle-class lifestyle…You are not competing to recruit the same kind of people who would go into industry.” The various lists of civil service honors that were meant to offer prestige to public servants—the reward of becoming a “Sir,” “Dame,” or “Commander”—no longer make up for the opportunity cost of lost income at a London bank.
The exact purpose of elite education was, I discovered, a topic of surprising disagreement. James Schneider, once Director of Strategic Communications for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, believed that the British state faces exogenous forces outside its control. Because of this, educational reforms cannot make it more effective. “If you wanted a better Covid response…how many people study Classics, or not, might change outcomes by 2 percent or 3 percent.”
Others disagreed: Kane, for example, thought that education patterns were likely responsible for the broader decline. “There is a real question as to why Germany has this persistent 20 percent lead over Britain and France,” he said. “[I attribute this] to stronger investment in skills over the long-term. German education is much less elite-focused than the British and French, so you have a much more skilled industrial workforce. The competence of individual workers and their ability to self-direct impacted productivity.”
To Sir Martin Donnelly, the former Permanent Secretary of the Department for International Trade and president of Boeing Europe, it seemed that such gaps in hard technical competence have existed for decades: “When I worked in the French Civil Service, I shared a room with three people at my stage, each of them had designed a bit of a bridge. I hadn’t.” These particular advantages generated by Germany and France’s administrative cultures have given them minor relative margins of success in comparison to the UK. However, both countries are also struggling to adapt their governance traditions to a new geopolitical and economic epoch—one characterized by high inflation and commodities competition—that is exacerbating a broader absolute decline in Europe.
What almost every former public servant I talked to did agree on was that there was an absolute decline in state capacity. Robin Butler, Baron Butler of Brockwell and former Cabinet Secretary from 1988 to 1998, was one of the few to disagree. “Our traditional industries have been in decline. But some industries, for example, financial services, have always been in dramatic growth,” he told me. “We’re competing with much lower-wage economies, particularly China. We’ve got endemic weaknesses, but there are always weaknesses. I think that it’d be very unsafe to say that we are in a permanent course of decline.”
Schneider, however, summed up the more common view:
The British state is not very effective. It’s been actively dismantled to a greater degree than comparative European states…There is a debt mountain that is based on the idea that we will have strong growth going forward, which doesn’t seem to be the case. We have incredibly fragile supply chains that are pushing up the price of production. The parties don’t have the first clue about how to deal with what’s coming.
Kane placed similarly little weight on the technocratic apparatus of the Civil Service: “The big problem of the civil service, I would say, is that as a technocracy it’s not even effective. It fails on metrics which are classics of bureaucracy going back to ancient Babylon.” He pointed to basic record-keeping ability as an example. “[The] information management system collapsed with digitization. In the mid-2000s, we went digital and saw that as an opportunity to eliminate any kind of information management. Digitization was seen as a wonderful opportunity to economize. Unfortunately, the consequence of this is that you have masses of unorganized data.”
The consequences of this basic loss of efficacy and organization lurked behind some of the worst modern failures of the British state. Snell pointed to foreign policy in particular, remarking that “going to Helmand was driven solely by the desire to demonstrate military capability…A lot of it is self-delusion. I’ve spent hours in briefing rooms with the British military, where they will tell you that because of the Mau Mau, Malaya, and Northern Ireland insurgencies, we are the global leader in counterinsurgency. And yet the counterinsurgencies of the twenty-first century were both failures.”
Philip Rycroft, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, believed that the same failures were placing the very existence of the United Kingdom itself at risk. Rycroft saw the realization of this incapacity firsthand during the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014:
When I was working in the business department, we had an opportunity to have a morning with what was then called the “Top 200,” all the permanent secretaries and director generals. I found Whitehall complacent…There is a neglect of the periphery within the UK…because the center was historically worrying about empire. The background radiation is still there. When I was in Whitehall, sitting around the permanent secretaries table, I would talk about Scotland. Could I get them to emotionally engage? It was at the end [of the campaign], when a poll showed independence ahead, that I could see the knuckles whitening around the table. Folks in Defence, the Foreign Office, and the spooks [were] thinking “how do we deal with this?”
The ultimate impact of this negligence and incompetency is a breakdown among colleagues of the basic trust in each other to get things done. While Cummings hoped to re-center consulting within the British state itself, I was told that the primary driver of government work for private consultants is the desire to escape one’s own public service colleagues. “If you go into McKinsey,” remarked Donnelly, “You get lots of government work because ministers have stopped trusting their officials.” When you don’t even really perceive yourselves to be allies, there is little reason to cooperate, even where the most important affairs of state are concerned.
It is ultimately this full-scale breakdown in trust, competency, and common goals that paralyzes the British state. The intergenerational failure of its elites to adapt to the post-industrial landscape of power only intensifies the structural problems. The inability to judge its own industrial, manufacturing, scientific, and state capacity has led the UK to systematically overreach. A move towards increased technocracy, even if it could survive the austerity impulse of successive British governments, cannot undo the constraints—forged over centuries—that the UK operates under. Having met a critical threshold, the cumulative effects of decline are now blatant, yet there is still widespread denial among those who govern.
Just where the tipping point between gradual decline and sudden crisis ultimately falls is unclear. As long as London remains relatively prosperous, the British elite may continue to manage the UK’s decline for decades, even another century. There is a long curve of failure from successful re-foundation to state collapse. Britain’s governing classes saw the precipice in 1902, but instead allowed the soft power of their institutions to prevent course correction. They were content to utilize earlier successes and respected institutions for rent-seeking purposes. In the process, they lost everything.
The lesson of Britain is that the long-expected crisis that will act as a moment of reset never arrives. The decline is usually far bigger and more structurally locked-in than the more temporary moments of crisis reflect. Things go well enough for the people that matter and there are plenty of distractions for those who don’t. And eventually, you find yourself just another vassal state in a cold, grey ocean.