I tend to be someone who thinks this country is basically finished. Hence my recent article ‘England is Lost Forever’. Not my most subtle title.
Listeners of the Weekly Sceptic will know our Glorious Leader Toby Young is somewhat more optimistic. And now we have another optimist (sort of) in the form of Tom McTague, who claims in UnHerd that Britain has pretty much always been on the verge of collapse, at least in the eyes of the doomsters and gloomsters. Here’s an excerpt:
Have things ever been so grim? Given the depressing reality of contemporary Britain — with the endless stories of sleaze and decay, decline and division — it is easy to draw that conclusion. Surely the NHS has never been this dire, the union this fragile or the country’s economic prospects this bleak? Surely we’ve never had a Government, or a parliament, quite so devoid of ideas and ambition? For those, like me, who find themselves asking these questions more regularly than ever, there is a salve of sorts available: modern British history. If you think you’re living through the worst of times today, think again — it’s usually like this.
Over the past few months, researching a book on Britain’s long, troubled relationship with Europe, I have found a strange solace in the almost seasonal nature of our national life, with its endless wintery crises (usually involving the weakness of the pound and our ability to pay our way) that eventually give way to spring-like calms. Ben Pimlott’s biography of Harold Wilson, for example, is like a thunderstorm of charm and disorder, short fixes and political escapism. There was, of course, plenty of honour and achievement along the way, but as you turn the final page, you cannot help but wonder what it all amounted to. Here was a magical politician who dominated British politics for more than a decade, only to fade from national consciousness with alarming speed, his ghost barely even troubling the minds of his successors let alone haunting them. Today, Wilson is back in vogue as the man who finally ended 13 years of Tory rule, a favourite of Keir Starmer and some Sixties nostalgics, but this was a man almost broken by his own decline — and his country’s.
Wilson, though, is the rule in this regard, not the exception. A similar air of despondency hangs over almost all of Britain’s post-war leaders up until 1979, each of whom fixated on the notion of British decline but were unable to escape its clutches.
Admittedly, to call this optimism is stretching things, but I understand the claim that we are by no means in uniquely bad times. Though this sidesteps the issue of mass immigration, which of course increased radically from 1997 onwards. Not to mention the illegal migrant problem, the escalating insanity of the culture war, and the existence of Nicola Sturgeon. I could go on. But McTague claims:
For Britain, the truth is that our crises are never quite as important as we imagine — and nor are our leaders.
To illustrate the point, here’s a challenge: when was the last time a British Government or prime minister pro-actively achieved something of lasting importance, addressing some great strategic threat before it became an existential challenge? The disasters are far easier to list, but not the lasting achievements. Did any of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Liz Truss leave us with any lasting monument to progress? It is hard to think of one. They largely managed crises — or, more often, caused them.
Here he is on more solid ground. Though he goes on to argue that even Thatcher is overrated, which will irk many.
Still, whether you agree or not, it is worth reading in full.