David Abulfia describes in the Great Sea the multitude of groups and cities that rose, fell, and disappeared in the Eastern Mediterranean between 1200 and 1500 BC—before written history began. Thanks to Homer, the best known of those cities was Troy. Reading about these peoples, cities, and their wars and migrations has something of the same effect as reading about the universe and reflecting on the minuteness and insignificance of a single human life.
Anyway the lines that grabbed my attention this morning were those in which Abulfia defines decline. He writes: “ ‘decline’ can mean many things: the loss of political unity as great empires dissolved; a reduction in trade as demand withered; a lowering of the standard of living not just among the political elite but across most of society.”
I thought about Britain today. Ever since I had the vaguest grasp of history I’ve thought that Britain is declining. It’s what separates us Brits from Americans, although their decline has now begun, and attracts us to Venice, which began its decline 500 years before us.
Britain has certainly lost political unity. Scotland votes a completely different way from England, and Brexit revealed deeper political divisions than almost anybody had recognised. (Some, particularly those who study the data on inequality, had recognised the divisions.)
Trade has not withered, but Britain imports far more than it exports. There is a great feeling of “Little Englishness” about, and Brexit may well mean reduced trade with Europe, our main trading partner by far.
When it comes to decline in the standard of living I think of my children—and the children of all of those I know, many, like me, members of the elite. Our children are poorer than us and likely to stay so. In contrast, almost everybody I know is richer than their parents. This can’t be explained by “regression to the mean,” although that will explain some of it—as will bias in the people I know. It’s also true that the country has a vast debt, which will (assuming humans don’t become extinct within a few decades, a distinct possibility) have to be repaid, probably by our children and grandchildren.
So decline is confirmed. Britain is following Troy into extinction.