Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Only a proper shock can jolt Britain out of comfortable decline

Fifty years ago I was hitchhiking down the Eastern Seaboard towards Miami overnight. It was midwinter, icy and way, way below zero. Through miscalculation, I had ended up being dropped near the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I walked up a ramp to the elevated carriageway and began trying to thumb another lift. Utterly stupid: no car was likely to stop. But I was tired, and getting desperate.

We’re in slow, apparently relentless but quite comfortable decline; and no chasm yawns ahead, or not yet

After about an hour the intense cold was biting deep into the bone. Though I had gloves, I lost feeling in my hands. Still I persisted, exhausted but adamant, fatigue wrecking common sense.

Then came something I’d never experienced. Calm was creeping over me, and a kind of passivity. My sense of danger ebbed. ‘Why not just step back to the steel barrier,’ I thought, ‘and rest a while?’ I did this. It was comfortable there, hunched in a foetal position, my back to the barrier, as the headlights of passing cars, heedless, swept by. My head dropped forward, chin on chest. It began to snow again but I was enveloped by a different blanket, a feeling of drowsy security, like those moments after anaesthetic before the operating theatre, as you struggle to stay conscious. No longer cold, I went to sleep.

Minutes later (I suppose) I awoke. This, it struck me, was how people die of exposure. Not writhing in agony but passing out without a struggle, to be found dead the next morning. Summoning what strength I had left, I stood up, put on my rucksack and lurched back down into the Bronx, and survival.

Last week the International Monetary Fund issued a ‘damning report’ on the United Kingdom’s economic performance and prospects.

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