Magazine article The Spectator

Not Down to Size

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Down to Size

Article excerpt

The Indian Prime Minister, Mr Gujral, and Martin Amis probably do not have much in common. They share, however, a misunderstanding of Britain. Mr Gujral was quoted as saying that we were 'a third-rate power'. Mr Amis was quoted as saying that he was moving to New York because the United States was where the history of the 21st century would be made and, in any case, Britain had become tediously middleclass.

First, Mr Gujral: a third-rate power compared to whom? Compared to the United States? But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are all third-rate powers compared to the United States. A better comparison is with countries of comparable size and population to ours. Thus, having avoided defeat, occupation, collaboration and a colonial war threatening the home country in the way that the Algerian problem threatened French democracy, we have not done too badly compared with France these last 60 years or so. Our economy is now healthier than that of Germany, which in any case, since reunification, now has a much larger population than we have.

What Mr Gujral probably meant was `third-rate' compared with when we conquered and ruled India. But that was a relatively brief period in our history. There is no causal link between a country's size or power and its contribution to civilisation. Shakespeare's England was 'a third-rate power' compared to France and Spain. The world must wait and see whether the vast, populous and only 50 years old state of India makes a contribution to civilisation comparable to Shakespeare.

Which brings us back to Mr Amis. He is mistaken if he thinks size matters. Size could even be the reason why the United States, in the next century, withdraws from history. It would be big enough to afford to do so. After all, it was not in at the start of either 20th-century world war.

Ibsen and Strindberg changed the world's drama from, respectively, Norway and Sweden. Jane Austen famously took little account of the Napoleonic wars going on as she wrote. All this is how little power politics can affect great writing.

It is odd that Mr Amis should need to live in a country making history, since history's broad sweep has not much affected his works up to now. He is hardly our Tolstoy. Mankind, then, will be disappointed if the Indian great power of the future, and the Amis at Manhattan's cutting edge of history, do not produce masterpieces comparable to little old Britain's. …

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