The whole world is watching Britain on television this week, and what they’re seeing looks surprisingly good. The rain finally ended, the mood is mellow and stress-free, and the big sporting event is notable for its self-effacing humility.
You can tell that a lot of Britain’s bigger problems have not quite been solved, but at least reduced in intensity. Crime rates are the lowest in decades. The economy is wounded but better than those of most European countries. Public transport, after a disastrous postwar nationalization followed by a catastrophic 1980s privatization, is finally working well. The health system is better than ever. Secondary education is middling; universities are top-notch. Few European countries display as much racial and religious tolerance.
In short, it’s probably the best it’s ever been. The past four years have knocked back its economy and politics, but Britain’s underlying society and institutions have never been healthier.
You wouldn’t know this from the way people talk about their country: “Broken Britain,” “gone to the dogs,” “a cultural cul-de-sac.” Recent popular books include 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain (2008), The Rotten State of Britain (2009), Bog-Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great Nation (2010) and the most recent Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third-World Economy by 2014 (2012).
For one of the world’s least religious people, the British have one of the most enduring investments in the thoroughly Christian notion of the fall of man. Many top-selling pop historians and journalists – Niall Ferguson, Theodore Dalrymple, Roger Scruton, Jeremy Clarkson – have devoted their careers to claiming that Britain has suffered a terrible moral, economic and spiritual decline from its golden age.
But when was that supposed golden age?
Some claim it was after the war, before divorce and the Pill and Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, when life was simpler, national institutions were grand, people knew their place and everyone pulled together.
But look at that age. Food rationing in the 1950s was worse than during the war. Poverty and overt racism were rife. The Suez Crisis devastated foreign policy, gang violence poisoned cities, and the collapse of the industrial economy had begun. The bestselling books of that time – What’s Wrong With Britain? (1954), The Stagnant Society (1961), Suicide of a Nation (1963) – made the same arguments you hear now.
A few Marxists and conservatives prefer pre-capitalist times, but mass starvation and early death made feudal Britain a miserable place. Others turn the clock back to the height of colonialism, when the pound was the world’s medium of exchange, the British Navy ruled the waves and London was the centre of the world.
But bigger did not mean better: This was a perilous and unpleasant time. The Empire had reached its economic peak in 1870, and its financial returns, along with Britain’s share of the world economy, declined precipitously after that, beginning with the worst depression the world had seen and continuing into a series of currency and trade crises and terrible wars.
Before the 1950s, Britain was a dark, poverty-filled and unhealthy place, where those without property had few rights and the lower classes could obtain no property. Health and decent education were the strict preserve of the well-off until after the war, and the United Kingdom’s multicultural reality (the country was always a mosaic of four very different cultures) was making itself violently known, especially in Ireland.
Even when things were stable, such as right before the First World War, everyone believed the place was a disaster. Shelves heaved with those same books. Every downturn, economic historian Jim Tomlinson has written, was “commonly treated not as part of the rough-and-tumble life of global capitalism … but rather as a symptom of profound economic, but also political, social and cultural malaise.” Sound familiar?
“It has always been a curious, even distasteful feature” of the British voice, Dr. Tomlinson notes, “that a country so rich has been so bemoaning of its fate.”
This week, you could almost feel that bemoaning stop. As one of their prime ministers once said during a much more painful era, they’ve never had it so good.