BY the time this appears in print, Britain’s general election will be over, and since the results are generally announced within a few hours of the poll, we shall know who has won – and who has lost – immediately after the poll. Neither the election nor the results will have much of an impact. Britain is no more the country it used to be, and there is not much interest in what is happening there. Indian newspapers have hardly mentioned the elections, and the man in the street couldn’t care less.
Sixty years ago, Britain was on top of the world, or that is what the Britishers thought. But they thought wrong. Britain was reduced to only a shadow of its former self, but it still had its king or queen, its palaces, its museums and universities, and usual panoply of a kingdom that had now lost its lustre. The empire on which the sun never set is now perpetually in the dark. Actually there is no empire, and because there is no empire, there is no Britain. The war finished the empire and eventually the country itself, for without the empire, who cares for the tiny piece of land in a corner of the continent?
I was in England last about five years ago. London was still, and probably still is, one of the world’s great capitals. I spent most of the time in the bookshops, as I normally do but the prices were prohibitive for a poor Indian and all I could afford were a couple of Penguins. London may still be a great world capital, but it is also outrageously expensive. A pair of very ordinary shoes puts you back 10,000 rupees, and a cup of coffee 250 rupees. A short bus ride-as no Indian can afford a taxi-costs 80 rupees and a newspaper, about five times as thick as ours, 40 rupees, often more. An English friend took me to Ritz, a posh hotel near Hyde Park, for afternoon tea, for which he had to fork out nearly 80 pounds or Rs 6,000 for two of us for a cup of tea, a couple of cucumber sandwiches and biscuits, and, of course, a big tip. The tip, incidentally, was almost 720 rupees!
England is supposed to be the cradle of industrial revolution. This is where it all began, starting with the steam engine and slowly spreading to railways and machine-made textiles. But there is virtually no industry in Britain now. There are only three big corporations-Glaxo, Shell and Unilever-and they are headed not by Englishmen but outsiders. England has been selling its companies to whomsoever bids for them, including Indians. A month ago, it sold Cadbury’s to Kraft, an American company, but the sale did not create any reaction in Britain. A few years ago, it had sold a motor car company to Tata, but that too did not create any waves. The British have turned their backs on history and seem to be totally unconcerned with what is happening around them.
The rise and fall of nations is a very big subject and one can write volumes on it. Why do some nations spring forth from nowhere and dominate the world as Britain did, and then after a few centuries fade into oblivion, as if they never existed? Who talks of Rome and Greece now, or even Egypt, which shook the world two or three thousand years ago? A few years ago, I visited Acropolis, the great temple on a hill in Athens, and I went up not by car, but on foot, led by a pair of donkeys who too were climbing the historic hill. The Acropolis is now in ruins, surrounded by big marble slabs on which the Greek sculptors once carved Greek gods and goddesses. The donkeys who had climbed the hill with me were now resting in the shadow of the temple, watched by a goatherd to whom they belonged. This is what the great Greek empire had now come to, I thought to myself, a couple of donkeys with bells round their necks, an old grizzled goatherd resting in the shade of the crumbling Acropolis, and a writer from India, who was watching it all, as he tried furiously to shield himself from the fierce Greek Sun. A few moments later, the sun went down, and so did we, donkeys and all, as we descended the steep steps that led us down to the tumult of Athens down below, not the ancient city where once you heard the clash of swords, but a modern Athens, noisy and dirty, built over the ruins of the old.
Nations are not created by machines, as many people mistakenly believe. The machines help in shaping the economy, but the nations are created by ideas, and therefore by thinkers and scientists, artists and writers. The Soviet Union was not created by five-year plans, though this is what we are often told, but it came into being in the wake of a single revolutionary idea, first propagated by Karl Marx, viz. The destruction of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. England suddenly gathered strength to conquer the world through the ideas of Adam Smith, a professor in Edinburgh University. It is Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others who shaped up industrial Europe and helped it stamp its mark on the world’s history.
Those days are over now, and Britain is not now ruled by its poets and artists like William Shakespeare, or scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. It is ruled by commission agents and stockbrokers, who sit glued to their computers, buying and selling bonds and shares, making a small percentage on this and that which adds up to quite a lot, but leaves everyone cold. Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers, which is true enough but shopkeepers have something solid to buy and sell, but commission agents have nothing but momentary images on computer screens. The British have lost an empire and gained only a few computers.
It matters very little whether the next government in Britain is led by Gordon Brown, or David Cameron or Nicholas Clegg, all of whom are cut from the same cloth. A hundred years ago, the choice was between Lord Palmerston and Benjamin Disraeli, imperialists both of them, but men who created history and shook the world. Now Britain’s world has shrunk to a narrow square mile between the House of Commons and 10 Downing Street, with the Whitehall between them.
Five years ago, when I was in England, I lost my way in the Whitehall and asked a passing tourist – a British tourist – If he could show me the way to Downing Street.
“Downing Street?” asked the man. “Never heard of it,” he said. And Downing Street is the home of Britain’s Prime Minister!
(The writer can be contacted at 301, Mani Kanchan Apts, Kanchan Galli, Law College Road, Pune-411004)