Is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a cause for jubilation? Certainly her reign has been a personal triumph: her iron sense of duty, gracefully performed, has been exemplary, if not an example often followed. For 60 years she has exercised a self-control that most of us find difficult even for 60 minutes; her recent state visit to Ireland put all our public figures of the past decades in the shade.
Not that that is very difficult, for there is no disguising that her reign has been an era of continuous and continuing decline. Of course, not even accelerating levels of British incompetence have been able to arrest the march of technical progress, and, in raw physical terms, life in these islands has improved greatly. It is now even possible to find passable food almost everywhere, even in the provinces.
But in relative terms, Britain has declined. When she came to the throne, the British car industry was the second largest in the world; now there is no major British-owned car company. In the land of the industrial revolution, foreign ownership and management is the sine qua non of industrial success. Though we invented the railway, others must build them for us; though we invented nuclear power, we cannot by our unaided efforts build a nuclear power station. Even in football, our clubs are foreign-owned and the players foreign. The British are too undisciplined to be good at what they are most (regrettably and childishly) interested in.
What have the last 60 years done for our villages, towns and cities? British architects, devoid of scruple as of talent or aesthetic sense, have waged war on beauty and triumphed in the struggle. It is as though they personally resented the achievements of the past. Hardly a town exists that has not been ruined by the hacks of modernism and the blindness of the town-planners. It is lucky for them that there is no justice in the world.
But it is in intangibles that the decline has been most marked. In 1952, Britain was among the best-ordered countries in the western world, and now it is the worst. The recent outbreak of mass criminality can have surprised only the wilfully blind. The British are now among the least self-disciplined people in the world: it is as though they had undergone a gestalt switch, so that what they previously decried they now honour, and vice versa. They are the fattest people in Europe: the characteristic smell of Britain is re-used fat. They treat the country as their personal rubbish tip — there is more litter here than anywhere else comparable — and they drink brutishly. They take more drugs than anyone else. They consume without discrimination and dress abominably because they have no self-respect or respect for others, an absence that is often evident in the way they work, no small matter in a service economy. They favour the uncouth over the refined and the stupid over the intelligent; their vulgarity, like their drunkenness, is not unselfconscious but militant. They mutilate rather than beautify themselves; they care for nothing except their odious entertainments, and their popular music is a paean to their hatred of life. They are individualistic without individualism. A consumer society without taste is a horrible thing to behold.
In the wake of the conviction of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, an editorial in the Guardian referred to the ‘hard lives etched on the faces’ of the accused. By hard lives, it meant not the kind of materially difficult lives that coal miners once lived, but lives lived in a brutal and fundamentally stupid culture: such faces not being biological, but biographical and cultural artefacts. You look for them in vain in pictures of even the poor at the beginning of our monarch’s reign. When you compare the faces and manner of dress in the football crowds from that era — or of footballers, for that matter — when football was a much more proletarian game than it is now, with the faces and manner of dress now, you see only human retrogression. And in no other country do you see so many horrible faces, like those of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, as in Britain.
Britain is now, what it was not at the beginning of the Queen’s reign, a corrupt country. On the Pelion of inefficiency has been piled the Ossa of careerism. For this Lady Thatcher must take a large part of the blame, for it was her fatuous belief in the wonders of management that gave the new nomenklatura its first lease of life. She made £400,000 salaries (and over) possible in the public service. The ideology of management was something that Blair creatively developed, as the Soviets used to say with regard to Marxist theory, to the point that we now cannot even run a public examination system with any probity.
The revelation that schools regularly deceive Ofsted inspectors was only too emblematic of what the British state now is: a hall of distorting mirrors. Schools, it seems, resort to all manner of subterfuges on the day of inspections in order to appear better than they are. And this corruption is not a malfunction of Ofsted; it is its main purpose. It is instituted to deceive the public into thinking that the government — that shepherd of the carnivorous sheep that constitute its flock — cares about educational standards. How else can one explain the fact that Ofsted warns schools of its impending inspections? Such a warning is a virtual incitement to deception; at the very least, it is a indication that the inspectors want to be deceived. It is by such means that standards can fall in reality while they rise in the virtual world of the government statement.
Wherever one looks in the public service, which is increasingly the means by which a nomenklatura enriches itself personally at the expense of the taxpayer, one finds the same kind of deception, the same attempt to manipulate appearance at the expense of reality, the same demand that employees, from the lowest to the highest, assent to propositions that they know or suspect to be false, in order to destroy their own probity.
In 1952, when the Queen came to the throne, the most popular female singer in the country, indeed the second most popular woman in the realm after the Queen herself, was Kathleen Ferrier, whom the great conductor, Bruno Walter, called one of the two greatest influences on his whole musical life, the other being none other than Gustav Mahler. To listen to her performance, when she knew that she was dying, of ‘Der Abschied’, from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, under Walter’s baton in the year of the Queen’s accession, has been rightly called unbearably moving.
Sixty years later, the most popular female singer was Amy Winehouse, the stupidly tattooed militant vulgarian of disgraceful conduct. Like the British people, of whom she was emblematic, she behaved abominably without being interesting. The first singer died prematurely of cancer; the second of gross overindulgence, in her own vomit. QED.
There are things which have declined in Britain since Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952, but none so much as middle-class Britons’ view of their own country. We have become a nation — and we share this characteristic with most advanced industrial societies — which lives and breathes pessimism. To listen to pervading opinion, Britain is in the grip of unprecedented moral decay, our industry has atrophied, beauty has given way to hideous suburban sprawl and the fit, beanpole Britons of 1952 have been replaced by clinically obese fleshpots who fall over drunk every evening.
Negativity goes right to the very top. We have a Prime Minister who thinks we are a ‘broken society’, a Governor of the Bank of England who thinks we are in a worse financial state than in the 1930s and a recent President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees of Ludlow, who thinks it is 50-50 whether human civilisation — let alone Britain —
will survive the century.
Little of the pessimism, however, stands up to scrutiny. The second Elizabethan age always was going to be a disappointment to those determined to judge it by the expansionism of the first (although I do vaguely remember another famous military victory against a Spanish-speaking country). No one in 1952 could have had any illusions that they were facing an era of imperial retrenchment and relative economic decline — the latter a result of other countries industrialising and growing richer rather than us poorer.
Nevertheless, I think a Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep after a trip to the Festival of Britain would be rather impressed if he awoke now. Industrial decline? Yes, if you study the badges on the cars or count the smoking chimneys. But that would be to fail to understand the modern economy. Monotonous procedures such as assembling cars have moved abroad, leaving British industry to concentrate on high-value, niche manufacturing that does not necessarily look so impressive but which keeps the world running. I didn’t even realise that I drive weekly past the headquarters of the world’s biggest producer of microprocessors.
The pessimists like to point out that 77 per cent of our economy is now services (Nicolas Sarkozy, while berating our industrial performance this week, failed to notice that France is even more service-orientated). But to decry services as inferior to manufacturing is outdated and wrong. Many more of our services are exported than in 1952 — so what does it matter that we are not hammering cars and ships together? Amy Winehouse might not be to everyone’s taste but there has to be something for virtually everyone to like among Britain’s vast musical exports — one of the huge successes of our service economy. As for the manner of Winehouse’s death, yes it was seedy, but was it really any different from that of Dylan Thomas in 1953?
It is inevitable that Britain should have become more urbanised over the past 60 years — as has just about every other country — and certainly a lot of postwar redevelopment is of a poor standard. But there has been a huge improvement in urban design in recent years; it is much of the 1950s and 1960s development which stands out as the worst. As for the countryside, while we’ve lost some greenfield land, Britain has become a world leader in nature conservancy. Substantial tracts of the decaying industrial landscape of the 1950s have been reborn as nature reserve. Environmental know-how, and equipment, has become another of our exports. If there is a minefield to clear or an oil spill to remove, a British company is likely to be involved.
Are we fatter than we were 60 years ago? It would be hardly surprising if we weren’t, given that Britain was still in rationing then. But there are far fewer people smoking themselves to death. Are we more criminal and more violent? In some ways, yes: the murder rate is a little less than double what it was in the early 1950s. Burglary and theft have soared — although many of the things which get stolen nowadays, such as mobile phones, simply did not exist in the 1950s.
But inner-city gangs aside, males are a lot less pugilistic than they were in the 1950s, when fighting was a regular part of Saturday evening entertainment. Violence at football matches is no longer a huge problem; it was the middle years of Elizabeth II’s reign that was the era of hooliganism. In many ways we are more tolerant and more peaceful. Anyone fancy going back to the 1950s and being black or gay or a single mother, or indeed anything outside the narrow social norms of the community in which you live? For all the excesses of the European Court of Human Rights, we should be proud of our influence on the rest of the world.
While we are sunk in pessimism, the rest of the world sees us rather differently. Immigration is often mentioned as one of the symptoms of a nation in decline — typified by the Devonian who a couple of years ago told me, without irony, that he was moving to Spain because ‘there’s too much immigration in Britain’. But the desire of immigrants to settle in Britain is a sign of health. Would half a million people a year want to come here if we were really going to the dogs? Of course they wouldn’t. They come here because we have an economy which offers great opportunity and a level of justice and security absent in much of the world. Happy the country which has a long queue at the door.