Jeremiads of Britain's decline come from both the left and right. But the picture painted of the country is unrecognisableby Ferdinand Mount / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Something is happening to Britain and the British. Or has happened. We are said to be passing through a transition, or a turning point, or a transformation; nobody is quite sure which. Opinions differ sharply as to what the “it” is that we are passing through.
Seasoned observers in the US tend to identify what they see quite simply as decline. A decline in relative power must certainly play some part. This is not 1914, and Britain, though still possessing the fourth largest economy in the world, is no longer number one. It has to be admitted that a large part of what drew many foreign observers to this country was the thrill of being at the centre of affairs. For Norman Podhoretz, to visit or to live in London was once to be in the modern Athens or Rome. Now he tells us, in a melancholy essay in Commentary, that he no longer bothers to read British newspapers or keep up with the English literary world. To judge by the pop and rock stars and feminists whose images adorn the new wing of the National Portrait Gallery, he concludes that “the forces at work in the culture and politics in the second half of the 20th century had left a sorry-nay, tragic wreckage behind.” Podhoretz agrees with Aleksa Djilas, writing in Prospect from Belgrade, that “the country’s culture has declined… The source of England’s greatness was that it was an island… its ideas and institutions were either more traditional or more advanced than in Europe or the US. Sometimes, most admirably, they were both.” An accusation of cultural decline from the former Yugoslavia-things must be really bad.
Apparently Britain does not look much better when viewed from outside the metropolis. In a recent Letter from Wales in the National Interest, the editor, Owen Harries (Welsh by birth, Australian and American by residence), declares: “until quite recently, it used to be the case that Britain was a decent, civilised country with very good public services but an absolutely lousy economy. Now it has changed to a country with a brilliant economy that is seriously and progressively sick in other respects.” The country which was formerly a byword for lawful behaviour, civility and respect for property now leads the world in every crime except murder. Feckless habits have bred an underclass, just as Charles Murray predicted. The NHS is sadly decayed. The people are illiterate. In a recent essay in Prospect (May 2001), Michael Elliott, former editor of Newsweek International and another expatriate Briton, takes up the theme: the British people have become rude and foul-mouthed, and nobody bothers to do anything about it. Even Tony Blair’s modest efforts to remedy this incivility are dismissed as sanctimonious and patronising.