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Keuka College News

Great Britain’s Second Finest Hour

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

When the Second World War ended 67 years ago, a dark cloud settled over Great Britain. It can be best described as a national malaise; a nation exhausted from two world wars that had drained its treasury, robbed so many soldiers and civilians of a future, and soon would cost them their beloved Empire on which “The Sun Never Set.” Wall Street, not London, was now the acknowledged financial capital of the world. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was voted out of office just after the war ended. It was a bitter pill for him and he fell into a depression. He left Downing Street for his home where he wrote his epic History of the Second World War while standing at his upright desk dressed in his wartime “Siren Suit.” He now commanded a small army of secretaries. 

Indeed, the late 1940s and the decades that followed were hard times for the British as they withdrew to their island kingdom. Once masters of the sea, much of the ship building industry was now in the hands of other nations. By 1955, their once hated enemy Germany had surpassed them in steel production.  Endless strikes crippled their car industry and the Japanese and Americans filled the void. Some of the best and brightest packed their bags and families and left for America and Canada.  The “Brain Drain” was underway.

But deep down the British knew the truth in the words of the wartime song “There Will Always Be an England,” and in time they would bounce back, not as an imperial power but as cultural force.

This year, during the Olympic Games and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the world witnessed how the British bounced back while retaining the essence of Britishness. On the opening day of the Games, organizers went to great lengths to remind the world of their nation’s contribution to the world. When the athletes were on parade, many from the Commonwealth marched under flags with small Union Jacks in the corners. When Queen Elizabeth II was feted in her gilded coach amid a sea of British flags and British soldiers in uniforms from another age, their well-groomed horses in perfect step, the world was once again reminded of the power of tradition and the essence of Britain.

But there is far more to this picture than pageantry. The manufacturing of heavy equipment is still 21 percent of its GDP and trade relations with the Commonwealth of Nations are robust. In the Age of Empire, London was the center of the financial universe and it is again alive and well.  The decision to keep the pound as its currency and not join the EURO Zone boded well. Sitting between the Americas and Asia in a world where business takes place 24/7, London is the connective link of an international nexus of communications. Its $2.67 million GDP in a nation of 61 million gives it a healthy per capita GDP of $42,540, slightly below the USA.

It was no coincidence that in the closing hours of the London games, the actor who played Churchill in The King’s Speech reminded the entire world of what the wartime prime minister told his people during the Blitz: “If the British Empire lasts a thousand years, this will be its finest hour.

The summer of 2012 was the UK’s second finest hour. Given the success of the London Olympics, we can be assured that “things British” will be in vogue—its fashions, tourist industry, the Royals, and of course, the Mini Cooper, which is owned by the German firm BMW, a testimony of how the British adjusted to the global economy.

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