“I thought British policy was to make the world England.”
So said the fictional Major Duncan Hayward in the Hollywood version of Last of the Mohicans. Major Hayward was appalled when his superior officer granted concessions to the independent colonials as a condition for getting the nascent Americans to help the British Army fight the French in the 18th Century. The Europeans wore themselves out trying to make their economic system work across an ocean that took weeks to cross.
Two hundred years later, John le Carré brought the decline of empire theme into his Smiley spy novels, first with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and then Smiley’s People. These are spy stories from the Cold War, but they might as well be about today’s America or Europe. What we see and what we feel are not just the suspense and spying tradecraft but the decadence, the loss of integrity, the corruption and superficiality. Worst of all for honorable, out of place men like George Smiley, we see the rise of silly, incompetent buffoons who pretend to rule an empire that no longer exists and who only hasten its decline. Smiley would recognize men like Cameron, Osborne . . . and Gingrich, et ilk. From the Guardian:
Brazil has overtaken the UK to become the world’s sixth-largest economy, according to a team of economists. The banking crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession has relegated the UK to seventh place in 2011, behind South America’s largest economy, which has boomed on the back of exports to China and the far east.
Of course, this isn’t just new world versus old. Brazil is rising partly by extracting its vast resources, just as America did. It’s exploiting its interior and coastal waters to extract fossil energy, and plundering its forests to grow products to sell to new and fading empires. The entire planet will pay for this folly.
And England’s recession isn’t merely the unavoidable product of the great crash; it’s the predictable outcome of the foolish economic austerity policies of the Conservative government. Yet even before the crash, far too much of the UK’s GDP was driven not by productive, job-creating endeavors helpful to the species but to “innovative” financial schemes based on fraud and looting, just like those pursued in America. Like our own GDP, Britain’s sixth place was partly built on financial fraud; the “growth” was ephemeral or at least badly distributed; it all went to the top, and the rest of the population got crushed. Now new buffoons are in charge.
I recently rewatched both PBS/BBC le Carré thrillers and they are magnificent — I don’t know why anyone would want or dare to attempt a remake — though a new Tinker Tailor is here and I will go see it. But I suppose each generation has to keep retelling the great moral stories. The series are six hours each, but riveting from start to finish.
In the end, after reaching a resolution we’ve been waiting 12 hours to see — one great soldier confronting his opposite — Smiley is surprisingly unmoved. His colleague asks, why aren’t you celebrating? “You’ve won!” his friend declares. “Did I? . . . Yes, I suppose I did.” But George Smiley knows everything he ever cared about is lost.
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