1 June 2018

Don’t look back in anger


Two thirds of Britons think life in this country ain’t what it used to be; the past isn’t just a foreign country where they did things differently, it’s a place where they — we — did things better. That, at any rate, is the headline finding of a new survey conducted by the think tank Demos.

As that most traditional of British hymns, “Abide with me”, puts it: “Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see”. Things are not what they were. But then they never were all that either. No wonder the comedian Dara O’Briain quips, “Nostalgia is heroin for old people.” And not just for oldies either; this is intergenerational smack. The country really is going to the bleedin’ dogs.

To which the only responsible answer is: fiddlesticks. Was life really better in ye bygone days if you were a woman? If you were gay? If you were black or Asian or a member of any other minority? To ask the question is to be slapped in the face by the obvious answer: no it bloody well was not. If the price of massively expanding opportunities — and liberties — for all these groups is the discombobulation of the white, male working-class then so be it. It is a more than fair bargain, no matter how much you might sympathise with the sense of loss and disorientation that, while hardly unique to this country, exerts a significant — and populist — influence upon our politics.

Apparently, we also think that the government is not doing enough to promote “British values”. At least that is what 55 per cent of those polled say. But what, in any case, are “British values”? Liberty and the rule of law, these days, are hardly limited to this country. No, if we are to locate “British values” they will be found in what you might deem a British sensibility. At its best this is sceptical, non-ideological, indulgent of idiosyncracy and, above all, hellbent on muddling-through. All this would be accompanied by a sardonic suspicion there’s really no such thing as “British values” or, even if there are, certainly none that should be taken too seriously. Life is too important for that. Mustn’t grumble; things can always be worse.

That in turn requires that we recognise rose-tinted nonsense for the foolishness it is. The sense the country has gone to the dogs is the hardiest of all perennials but none the less misplaced for all that. This remains the case no matter how much we enjoy complaining about the country’s irretrievable decline. Gammon is, if you will, a dish enjoyed by almost everyone at least some of the time.

Indeed there is a striking cross-party, inter-generational consensus on this. If peeved white van men were among the drivers of Brexit, their sense of decay is matched by the conviction common amongst ultra-Remainers that Britain has lost its mind, its way, and its future. Things were better in the past, before all this unpleasantness.

Not every finding need be treated with much seriousness. For instance 65 per cent of 18-24 year-olds say life was better when they were growing up. Since that locates this halcyon era around the time the global economy went into near total meltdown in 2008, I am not sure we really need to take too much account of this.

Similarly, 73 per cent of 25-34 year-olds agree that Britain’s status on the world stage was better and greater when they were growing up. This may well be the case, though it is also a novel interpretation of the Iraq war which, besides being a critical moment for the reputation of our political leaders, is not generally considered one of the shiniest moments in post-war foreign policy.

The picture of a country of nostalgic pessimists is less clear when you look past the headline figures. More than 80 per cent of people believe there will be a fair or great amount of change in the coming decades — a safe bet at almost any moment in human history, that — but 31 per cent think, overall, these changes will be a good thing for people like them while 30 per cent fear they will be bad.

Leave voters and those with degrees are markedly more optimistic on this measurement than Remain voters and those without higher education qualifications; a reminder, if nothing else, that society is complicated and that different constituencies cut across one another.

That’s something confirmed by the fact that while one in four Leave voters thinks immigration has had a positive impact on British life, one in four Remainers think it has been a negative. In like fashion, Britons overwhelmingly believe immigration has created divided communities but they also think, on balance, that immigration has either been a good thing for their own local area or has made little to no difference to it.

There is a risk here of creating a self-fulfilling crisis. The more politicians and commentators bemoan the absence of hope the more probable it is that voters will consider everything hopeless. That in turn creates the conditions for a rebarbative politics in which hope is confused with fantasy politics of a sort that cannot possibly be delivered. The failure to follow through on those far-fetched promises then sets the scene for further, and deeper, disillusionment that in turn further corrodes trust in the institutions upon which civil society depends.

Every era thinks there must have been a better, more comfortable, more pleasant era in the past. Halcyon days always lie behind us. But the truth is there never was any golden age; not in this country and not elsewhere either. Indeed by any reasonable measurement the world’s population, taken as a whole, really has never had it so good. Like so much else, this remains a work of uneven and incomplete progress.

Nevertheless, if you were magically given the chance to be born as the planet’s median citizen at any point in human history you would be brave indeed to choose to be born at any time other than the present. To put it in terms of William Beveridge’s five great giants, the planet has never been so free of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

That may be little consolation to individuals in the affluent West who feel they have been, or may be about to be, left behind. But a broader view can sometimes also be a more accurate view and by that standard this truly is an age of wonders. We forget that too easily even as we fret, quite reasonably, about the challenges we face.

And, for all that liberal democracy is going through one of its ropier moments it is not yet on the verge of being eclipsed by any alternative system. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” must be one of the late 20th century’s most traduced and least understood books; it is not that no alternatives to liberal democracy exist – plainly, as we see in China, Russia and elsewhere, they do – but that no alternatives have yet been proven superior. That remains the case even if we are also too readily inclined to take such things for granted. Likewise capitalism, for all its ruthlessness, inequality, and shortcomings remains a better system than anything else we have yet discovered. The alternative is the misery of real and destructive poverty.

Of course, there are challenges and struggles and many of them are significant and intractable; we are living through an era of astonishing technological and sociological change. That tumult necessarily requires casualties but the overall arc of human progress remains clear: it bends towards a better, kinder, juster, future.

The vast majority of us lead lives of tolerable prosperity, tolerable comfort and tolerable happiness. These are not small things and they are available to us to a degree our ancestors could scarcely have imagined, let alone expected for themselves. Forgetting that requires us to forget the very history about which we are, it seems, so nostalgic.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.