Everywhere you turn, it is hard to escape the sirens of decline. Their song echoes through Coffee House: “Buy supplies”, they sing, “take the kids out of schools, close down the hatches - for Britain is going under, broken beyond repair, stuck in a rot from which it cannot escape, while the weaklings of yesteryear (like China and Brazil) roam free on the land that our forbears toiled.” Next month, they will take the stage at a Spectator Debate.
I have even succumbed to their sentiment. It is easy to do. The vicissitudes of Britain's military operations, the failure of the nation’s elite, the short-sighted over-reliance on the City of London and the downward pressure of the numbers -- whether those measuring Britain's economic output or other social indicators makes optimism difficult to sustain. Britain still maintains one of the world’s largest defense budgets and most capable armies. But most defence scholars I speak to are convinced that the political elite, from left to right, have yet to face up to the cost-cutting required and that Britain will, in future, be more aligned with traditionally lower-spending continental powers than the US.
The election campaign has begun - with Samantha Cameron's coming out interview acting as the informal indicator much like the emergence of crocus foretells the coming of spring. But unlike the US, which reacted to economic gloom with a democratic festival greater than anything seen before, Britain's electorate seem to be shrugging towards polling day. The electorate is tired of Labour, unenthused by the Conservative Party and far less concerned about the consequences of an inconclusive electoral result than either the markets of the commentariat are.
But societal greatness comes from ignoring the pessimism of the intellect and listening to the optimism of the heart (to quote Antonio Gramsci). For many of the things that make countries great are difficult to measure. They are things like the vibrancy of our society, the resilience of the nation’s values, the example of Britain’s history and the remarkable progress made in recent years, despite the obvious set-backs. Britain is less racist, more dynamic place than in the past and less dangerous than before. It has spawned countless new industries, Olympians to inspire and remains the best place to do business in Europe. Its institutions – like the Foreign Office, the Financial Times, and the Queen – continue to inspire others.
Furthermore, Europe has been shaped more by British ideas in the last twenty years than German or French in-put. Through enlargement to the east, the EU is now firmly anglophile, and leans away from dirigisme and towards free-market philosophies. Though it may not always seem so, James Rogers has shown the British conception of security remains dominant on the European continent today. Today, when the German government refused to send troops to fight the Taliban it faces a barrage of criticism – from its own newspapers. In the past, nobody would have blinked.
Many things need to be fixed in Britain. OK – a lot of things need fixing. Nearly 20 percent of the population is over 65 -- a proportion the Office for National Statistics predicts will have grown by 50 percent by 2020. That is an economic time-bomb that has to be defused either by tax incentives for child-rearing (like in France) or immigration (like the US) – but in ways that address concerns about over-crowding, limited housing, and the erosion of Britain’s values.
Bringing debt under control will be particularly important. Here are some ideas for how to do so (with thanks to JA): many of the 1000 quangos will have to be abolished, numerous FCO consulates closed, student tuition fees increased, child benefit means tested, limits imposed on all public sector salary increases for the next five years, less money given to overseas aid, NHS strategic health authorities shut down, the National School of Government merged with the Defence Academy, and the Elizabeth Conference Center sold off. And that may not even be enough.
It remains an open question whether the majority of Britons can make the necessary sacrifice to guarantee a sovereign and prosperous future. But while Britain may be broken in parts, it is made of sturdy stuff. And I for one intend to ignore the siren’s call of decline.