However convulsive Britain's current crisis might get, there are reasons to remain hopefulby Tom Clark / December 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
What does this place have in store for us in 2019? In Chris Morris’s 1990s newssatire, The Day Today, viewers are told at one point that all normal programmes have been suspended to make way for a film to be played at moments of crisis—what follows are images of fluttering Union flags, British bobbies and villages with names like Wabznasm, set against the stirring backdrop of Holst’s Jupiter, as a voice booms “it’s all alright, it’s all OK.” To say anything other than “this is a national crisis” just now is to risk sounding like that booming voice. The country is divided, the bedrock of its foreign and commercial policy for the last half-century having been shattered by a referendum whose meaning is bitterly contested, as constitutional fractures between parliament and government open up. Worse, as Fintan O’Toole mercilessly exposes from an Irish perspective, there are signs that the English are falling prey to dangerous and self-pitying nationalist myths that could—if they become entrenched—undermine our ability to chart a pragmatic way through the rocky waters ahead. The current cohort of hopefuls competing to get their hands on the tiller don’t inspire much confidence. Compare them with politicians past, and too many would rate as small-minded, even frivolous, in this grave hour. And yet in pulling together a double issue of a monthly current affairs magazine at a time of flux, there is no choice but to think about many things that will continue to be true wherever we happen to land in relation to the EU in the fateful weeks ahead. Some of those things are indeed, as Morris’s baritone would have it, “alright” and “OK.” Of course there really are deep social divisions, some of which were laid bare by the Brexit vote. But it is striking how much of the airtime in the so-called culture wars are consumed with offence and the policing of language, rather than threats to life and limb. Questions of identity and immigration sometimes get debated in incendiary terms, and yet this corner of the world is still one where people from far and wide can—in their practical, day-to-day dealings—mostly rub along with relative ease. Multiculturalism has its tensions, but overall the UK’s acceptance of living with difference has achieved happier results than, for example, heavy-handed French presumptions about every citizen having to sign up to rigid secular codes. Many provincial centres have, as Paul Collier wrote in Prospect’s November issue, seen better days. But most are a merciful distance from the urban wastelands that pass for towns in much of the United States. The same planning laws that have sometimes frustrated growth have preserved the best of our countryside unspoilt, and there are moves afoot to expand the network of National Parks (Speed Data). Turning to the economy, yes, wages have been stagnant and work is too often insecure, but should we sink into a self-inflicted slump, at least we won’t be starting out with entrenched mass unemployment. And while we may struggle to pull all the same levers that helped bring us back from the edge in 2008-9, this time around, Britain retains more scope than many to respond to adversity because it remains a wealthy and credit-worthy country that has never overtly defaulted on its debt. “A sense of context—the backstory, the bigger picture, the animating idea—gives us our best hope of making sense of the frenzy” Poverty and social inequality are wretched and stubborn facts in modern Britain, but even after the savage squeeze of the last few years, there is still healthcare, schooling and a residual safety net that our ancestors—and our contemporaries across much of the planet—would be grateful for. Most of the time one can rely on the ethos of Britain’s courts, public and civil service to ensure that our institutions will conduct themselves in an honest manner. And, as both the courts and parliament have shown throughout the Brexit saga, both institutions still expect and demand a measure of consultation and due process. We may, or may not, be about to gravely complicate our most important trading relationship, but we retain a lot of capacity to repair our external relations—and renew in other ways too. Democracies, especially long-established ones, are better placed to learn from their missteps, because unlike autocracies and other systems (see Anatol Lieven), they can throw out misrulers without threatening the fabric of the state. Decades, or even centuries, of strength in finance, scientific and other service industries should go on giving Britain something to sell to the rest of the world, and all the more so because we enjoy the advantage of having the world’s lingua franca as our mother tongue. However bleak diplomatic or economic things may seem, Britain can also draw real comfort from its venerable intellectual hinterland, to which the bulk of this mid-winter issue is dedicated. Philip Larkin may have privately indulged in some of the prejudice that has, arguably, landed the country in trouble today. But that did not stop him—as Clive James argues—producing poetry so sublime that it can proudly stand in a line that traces back to Marvell and Donne. British theatre is as vibrant as it ever was, as our portrait of the Young Vic’s theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah attests (Lyn Gardner). The pens of British writers are as sharp as ever too: if you doubt it, just take a look at the fiction we publish from the Man Booker prize-nominated David Szalay, at the sparkling piece by AL Kennedy, at Jane Shilling on Posy Simmonds or at various other reviews in our fiction special. The British academy produces powerful historians of diverse views (Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama), and its universities are as good a place as any to study philosophy. But if, as many fear, the challenges confronting the country are as baffling as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (see Ray Monk) will this splendid cerebral pedigree do us any good? Keynes wrote that “ideas both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else… Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Even if you don’t go as far as him, and I can certainly think of one madman in Washington who doesn’t seem unconsciously shaped by any academic scribbler, I really do believe that a sense of intellectual context—that feel for the backstory, the bigger picture, the animating idea—gives us the best hope of getting behind the headlines and making sense of the frenzy. Prospect was thrilled to be named the political title of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards in November, where, in a strong field including the Economist and the New Statesman, the judges said we had “done most to improve” our magazine by “making [our] monthly as punchy as the political weeklies.” It strikes me that in times of tumult, not being able to respond to the passing twist and turns of every day and week is a positive advantage, because it forces us to concentrate on deeper dives and a longer view. But the question remains: can the country’s biggest brains actually produce any insights of practical use for our times? We put them to the test by asking eminent people in different fields—the law, the clergy, journalism, even mathematics—what they regard as the most pressing single lesson we would do well to learn in 2019. The UK’s former top judge, David Neuberger, urges us to confront the threats of the rule of law, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that we could rediscover how to talk to each other if only we could first learn to forgive, and tech and maths expert Hannah Fry urges us to face up to the need to temper artificial intelligence with human judgment. All of these things, to me at least, sound like useful lessons to learn—or perhaps I should say to remember. Because it is striking how many of these experts urge us to go into the new year by rediscovering some of the old wisdom that we seem, somehow, to have forgotten. If we keep our heads as a country, then there will eventually be something to put back together, however convulsive the current crisis might get. I’ll see you again on the other side. In the meantime have a terrific Christmas and New Year break. After the last year of news, it cannot come too soon.