Managing National Change: How the British Did It

By Cohen, Richard | Journal of Power and Ethics, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Managing National Change: How the British Did It


Cohen, Richard, Journal of Power and Ethics


Abstract

How did Britain, one of the victorious powers of the Second World War, manage the dramatic transition from an acknowledged world power with a huge empire, to the role of a medium-sized regional power in a period of less than 30 years? More importantly, how did it manage to do so in a generally positive and successful way, to remain today an important cultural, political and military actor on the world stage? I will make the premise that this monumental strategic change was successfully managed due to the presence of 4 main elements; first a broad agreement on national interests and objectives; second, the achievement of consensus on how to achieve these goals; third, an innate sense of national pragmatism in the approach to change; and last but not least, the maintenance of strong and effective armed forces as an instrument of national policy.

Introduction

How did Britain, one of the victorious powers of the Second World War, manage the dramatic transition from an acknowledged world power with a huge empire, to the role of a medium-sized regional power in a period of less than 30 years? More importantly, how did it manage to do so in a generally positive and successful way, to remain today an important cultural, political and military actor on the world stage?

This is the question, which I will attempt to answer in the course of this paper. I will make the premise that this monumental strategic change was successfully managed due to the presence of 4 main elements; first a broad agreement on national interests and objectives; second, the achievement of consensus on how to achieve these goals; third, an innate sense of national pragmatism in the approach to change; and last but not least, the maintenance of strong and effective armed forces as an instrument of national policy.

At the end of WWII, Britain found itself with a still large empire but in a much-weakened state due to the huge economic, military and psychological exertions of the War. Even in the glow of victory, it was evident to most people who thought about these things, that Britain's days of greatness were quickly slipping away. The War had accelerated the process dramatically.

We will explore this issue from 3 perspectives:

First, we will examine some of the basic elements of what we call Britain's 'strategic culture', which has shaped her behavior as a nation. Second, we will discuss the factors that influenced change. Third, we will analyze the four elements already mentioned above which were the key to the relative success of that change.

Finally, we will look at what the future holds for Britain and how the current government is confronting the diverging options for its long term sovereignty and independence of action in Europe and the world.

British Strategic Culture

The Strategic Culture of a state is dependent on many factors, some obvious, some more subtle. We will consider four factors, which have had profound influence, on how Britain views itself and its relations to the world around it. They are Geography; History; Political Structure; and Economics.

Geography

Britain is a relatively small island state separated from the European mainland by a narrow, but psychologically and militarily important channel of water measuring somewhat less than 40 kilometers at its narrowest point. Geography has thus ensured that Britain is not only anchored to Europe, but that it is also linked to the oceans and to the wider world outside the European continent. In the days before the airplane, the country could only be threatened from the sea. As its trade developed, it also became dependent on the sea for its material wealth. Britain therefore developed primarily as a maritime state, which looked outward to the world and as well as to its immediate neighbors on the European mainland.

Given Britain's dependence on the sea and on trade for its prosperity, it was perhaps natural for Britain to develop a network of colonies, which later became the British Empire.

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