I have been itching to try and answer this question. Over the past 6 months I have travelled to the US, Asia and Europe and each time when I come home I bring with me a clear sense of Britain’s advantages. But within days the imperfections we all live with return to the forefront of my mind, and the notion of British exceptionalism becomes lost in the routine of work and family life. Quickly I slip back into doubt; there is so much to consider. What a ridiculous question! A question which only occurs to those who fear the answer might be different.
But here goes. To end the procrastination, I have given myself the length of my train journey from Paddington to Pewsey (1 hour 15 minutes) to write something down. Most of Paddington has recently been refurbished and it is a pleasing, uplifting starting point for an expedition in deliberation. The 18.33 to Exeter St David’s is waiting at Platform 5, and on my way I pass the Heathrow Express which evokes stirring echoes of George Osborne’s famous slogan ‘Britain is open for business’; a different messages is on the front page of my (free) London Evening Standard: “Heathrow chaos: now border staff plan strike”. I make it through the ticket gates with my head ringing with a very British combination of optimism and caution. Which best represents Britain’s prospects?
On Platform 5 I walk the length of the Class 43 Inter City 125 towards Carriage A, which is a designated Quiet Carriage. The livery – bright pink doors and a fluid pink and purple graphic on a midnight blue background called ‘Dynamic Lines’ – irks rolling stock which is 30 years old but handsome still and serviceable in a draughty, slam-door sort of way. We leave on time, as we normally do. The Great Western Mainline, which runs to Penzance, will be electrified sometime between 2015 and 2020, and the Inter City stock will be replaced with the (imported) Hitachi Super Express. This evening I am lucky to have two seats to myself; cynics among my commuter friends warn we should not make the mistake of equating new rolling stock with better seating or more leg room. But enough of British cynicism and British trains, there isn’t time.
And stop scanning the Evening Standard.
[QUOTE OF THE DAY: What? I’m down with all of them”. Gwyneth Paltrow on being asked by Amanda de Cadanet in an American TV interview about her favourite sexual position.]
Tomorrow London votes for a new mayor, and there are local government elections across the UK. There is a two-page interview of David Cameron on pages 8 and 9. Cameron will be bracing himself for a bad set of results but Boris should hold London and this will frustrate Ed Milliband’s attempts to break through as a serious threat to Cameron. “I want a Boris in every city” says Cameron. “When I see Boris succeed I think GOOD.”
Aaargh – Thames Valley industrial parks are beginning to flit past. Reading station beckons but it is a terrible bottleneck and we should be held waiting while a platform becomes free. And so we halt. Now, get to the point!
1. We have a head of state who rules in the name of service and love. The monarchy is associated with pomp and formality and the military and emotional brevity but it rules in the name of community and safety and love. This sounds glib but austerity and anxiety are exerting a disaggregating pressure on our society, and the ruling spirit really counts. Examine the Queen’s behaviour; prepare to miss her when she is gone. Look how hard Prince Charles works for others. It seems to have rubbed of on his sons. And the royal family casts harmless star dust over the land and channels the affection of tens of millions around the world to London and the United Kingdom. And it is authentic and organic; it is played by real people doing their best for the sake of it. Only the British could under-appreciate this feat of state craft.
2. The monarchy also denies power to the executive; it acts as a quiet break on prime ministerial ambition. Too quiet for some, perhaps, but all prime ministers are kept in their place – even Tony Blair had to explain himself on a weekly basis. Despite empowering Margaret Thatcher and Blair to over-reach, our political system is fundamentally efficient and trusted: it ejects incumbents at roughly the right time. It points forward and embraces change, although we continue to navigate choppy waters without any real sense of where we want to end up. The absence of a long term, deliberated and widely understood strategy costs us and is the biggest and most damaging gift of empire which we still possess.*
Lakes and canal, both swollen with water after a wet April. A golf course, a driving range and immediately Newbury race course; the white fencing, the native woodland greening in the distance, the Dubai Duty Free Grandstand. Red brick terraced houses; a station in need of a lick of paint; ‘Home of Vodafone’ say the ugly signs – this is a company town. From Newbury in Royal Berkshire reaches a global network of masts and booster stations and submarine cables and a hundred million service agreements and handsets and legally binding small print and monthly revenues which in 2010/11 generated an operating profit of £12.2bn.
3. We vote with kindness. Look at the French who are as rich as we are, and live in a much bigger, and more blessed piece of geography. And yet a nation to whom many British commentators defer to for its sophistication and cuisine and esprit, votes every four years in vast numbers for dark-thinking nationalists and malcontents. The French vote against things, and we vote for things. We live on the open sea, we are blown about – we know nothing is perfect; they live in the fertile valley and grow everything in neat rows and lose the light on a regular basis. The BNP is a nasty but laughable quarry few in Britain fear. Picture Cameron, instead of one of the French Presidential candidates having to swear and bluster at globalisation so that he might fool 6 million hearts of oak that only he had the force to keep Britain unblemished, and change at bay. We live in the real world and we are not afraid. Cherish this.
Next stop Hungerford. The country gets wild and scruffy. I must try and get to 5. before we cross into Wiltshire:
4. In Britain organised religion has diminished in authority to the extent that the church must ingratiate itself to the majority through acts of charity, not the other way around. Thus it has become an emblem of kindness and tolerance, and its clergy have suppressed the superstitions and bossiness which once came naturally to them. This is very important, frees us and makes us modern. We are not God fearing; we are more concerned by funding the NHS than the infinite possibilities of heaven. Look what religion is doing to the US, once a nation celebrated for its enlightenment.
5. We lack an intelligentsia. Another way of saying this is that we are a pragmatic, grounded people weary of grand ideas and theories. As a pragmatic, grounded Brit I am weary of making this sort of grand assertion. But I can say that we lack an intelligentsia because it is simply not there. We have Jonathan Miller and Melvin Bragg and Neil McGregor and as many intelligent men and women as we need but they cannot move en masse, or seize a platform without risking mockery. Of course, this leads many to despair for our lack of sophistication and long for the French style (see point 3.). But does the absence of grandstanding Bernard-Henri Lévys and Michel Houellebecqs matter? More importantly, it makes Britain an inherently sceptical, doubting sort of place – Jerusalem can be built only with great patience and toil; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These honest, muscular virtues arm a people battling decline. There are no short cuts.
Bedwyn is minutes away. The line tracks the canal. We are in the gloaming; all I can see is fields climbing into the sky filled with sheep. I must not become sentimental.
6. The absence of an intelligentsia doesn’t mean we don’t believe in things. British values – fairness, tolerance, freedom of speech and association, the rights of the individual – are world famous. We are prepared to fight for these values, which makes us unusual and gives us a stake in the future and this gives us character because we have to care about the consequences of our actions. We haven’t minded soldiers dying up to now, though we are most of us uncomfortable about Afghanistan and whether it has been worth it. Just about all of us are embarrassed about Iraq, and how Blair allowed himself to be shepherded into it by President Bush, and took the rest of us with him. (Once in, Blair fought tooth and nail in Iraq in the name of British values like fairness, tolerance and freedom of speech and association). But the point I want to make is that Britain is a country which is willing to defend its values and interests. We are a P5 member of the UN Security Council, we have a place at top table. We may not, for the time being, have aircraft carriers, but we are engaged. This matters to all of us who live here because it places us on the front line, and garners us; in a small way we are critical and we cannot be indifferent to what is happening beyond our shores. Our voice is heard.
7. I have mentioned the economy only obliquely but of course it is fundamental. In an era of globalisation, the most important thing. Despite all our fears we are still good at the things we need to be good at. We are extraordinarily creative (though we not good enough at converting bright ideas into great businesses). Britain leads the world in music and theatre and publishing and contemporary art and being badly behaved; our pioneers lead the pack in restaurant kitchens and behind the world’s bike sheds and prowl base camp waiting to ascend Everest in Mallory’s footsteps. Our cigarette companies are world beaters, as are our pharmaceutical giants. We have the best universities in Europe. The quality and value of our scientists is at last understood. At the other end of the curriculum, we produce the bookish and the rule-makers in patient reams, ream after ream, and these white collar guardians of best practice and legal precedent and the P&L and risk management are just what is needed by the rapacious capitalists of Asia and the Americas and Africa. Though bruised, the City remains the world’s financial centre, and only bad policy will topple it. Making things lingers in our DNA, and the third industrial revolution (digital manufacturing, new materials and transformed industrial processes) gives us a chance to broaden our high tech manufacturing base. Look at the McLaren factory at Woking and see the future. The financial crisis has created a new generation of restless entrepreneurs with their heart set on proving themselves and flying the flag and buying somewhere on the beach in the Bahamas. These wealth creators will always be with us, in the future they will pay more tax. An open economy, Britain has attracted $1.09 trillion of inward investment since 1970 (the highest in the EU) and is the world’s second largest investor in other countries ($1.7 trillion), after the US. The UK remains the largest inward investor in the US. Etc.
8. The richness of our cultural and sporting life. What a rich brew this place is, and so well stirred and sweated out that it would be hard to separate. Shakespeare still fundamental, not just to us but to the world. The world’s greatest football league. The world’s best cricket team. Test matches. Film. Dogs. The Olympics will have wild flower meadows, brought carefully to flower in the critical weeks of July and August. Segue to allotments. The Great Northern Run. Celebrity Come Dancing.
We are coming into Pewsey. There is Martinsell Hill and its lone scots pine. I am almost done.
8. Things we can’t help: language (universal), geography (temperate, mild, room for global warming), our time zone (key to London’s success as a financial centre).
9. We are not in the eurozone.
10. A raced, generalist point with hints of sentimentality but it will have to serve as a summary. There remains something exceptional about this country; exceptional in a way that is dynamic and connected to the globe and shaping the future in a way that no other European power is capable of, even if they make better cars or cheese than us (and we make both very well). There is something inspiring about Britain in a steady, unpretentious, rather pedantic sort of way – we have a nobility; or it might just be kindness. In spite of our self-doubt / self-hatred, we inspire others and we know there is something important about what our island represents.
*But we need a national strategy, which is understood by all, not just the elites. All the above is a snap shot and may not last forever. We barely have any laurels left to rest on. It’s time to try and point everyone in the same approximate direction. In 1944, a senior mandarin’s suggestion to the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office that a two year foreign policy might be introduced, updated every six months, elicited the response “That way lies Bedlam”. Our long imperial glide path is at an end. We are come to rest, nose-first into the sand dunes and now we must climb out and make our way on foot.
PS: And we must persuade the Scots to stay in the Union. This is vital, and despite Alex Salmond’s twinkle and ruritanian silhouette, this looks set to be a nasty fight in a confined space which could still be won by the local man prepared to throw his weight around.
[I thought I would start with why Britain will be alright because I am naturally an optimist and this pastiche of an argument is closest to what I believe, or perhaps what I prefer to believe. But there’s also an argument to be made that we really are finished, and should fear for the lives of our grandchildren. I am saving this for another train ride home.]