Monday, April 07, 2008

The Dunkirk Spirit

I don't know whether it is the weather; I don't know if it is the government or the economy; I do know that I can hardly remember a time when the atmosphere in Britain has been so defeatist.

The terminal five fiasco perhaps brings home the fact that the UK tends to see its mistakes in apocalyptic terms: not "this was a pretty unacceptable failure of planning", but instead "we can't get anything right".

This self laceration that is often the hallmark of the whingeing poms seems to be growing worse- there seems a general sense of frustration and even of failure.

It would be politically convenient to blame this atmosphere on the government, and to be honest the malaise is at least partly the sense that the Labour government can not be held to account-that important things- like the Iraq war- have taken place despite the strongly expressed opposition of the majority of the British people. However I would also say that simply changing Brown for Blue and getting David Cameron as Prime Minister would lead to exactly same disillusion. The fact is that unless the political system imposes far greater direct accountability on our leaders- irrespective of party- and undertakes a radical reform, then the political disenchantment of most Brits will only grow.

However the sense of defeatism is also rooted in a great sense of economic insecurity. Fear is stalking the British economy: the fear that all of the prosperity that has been so slowly and painfully built up over the past decade or two rests upon the shallow foundations of a property bubble. So much of the wealth of the country is bound up in the housing market, that the prospect of an American style collapse sends chills down British spines. yet there is a fundamental difference between the US and the UK housing market: Americans can simply abandon their mortgage by returning the keys of their house. The British are liable for the debt, until it is repaid, irrespective of whether they have sold the house at a lower price or not.

As a result of this fundamental difference, the British lenders, paradoxically, have not created the sub prime asset class in their own market. The housing market is hugely leveraged, with average house prices now seven times average earnings, rather than the historic average of three times. However this increase is as much the result of the consideration of joint incomes when approving mortgage applications as anything else. Furthermore, anyone who has bought before the beginning of 2006 is sitting on a fairly substantial cushion of equity, even if prices actually fall, which, so far, they have not.

Yet in the face of the strain in the UK property market, we are seeing some extraordinary responses. Instead of a more prudent- yes, I know, a word devalued by misuse in politicians' mouths, but prudent is the right word- approach to personal finances, we are seeing a massive splurge on credit card spending. We are told that this simply shows how overextended the personal credit market is. I am a little sceptical about this. Much of the new debt is actually luxury expenditure- as though people are indulging in retail therapy, solely because they think that they are going to lose their credit cards. With that kind of fecklessness that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear of the crisis making things far worse than they actually are.

There is a crisis in the United Kingdom. It is a crisis of poor education and astonishing irresponsibility. The skills shortage caused by the failure of education to establish basic literacy and numeracy was filled by immigration, but the return of or Polish plumbers will increase costs, but the fact is that the major problem we face seems to be - to use an old fashioned idea- a failure of our moral character. In the good times we seem to have had our personal responsibility eroded or eliminated, with actions seemingly having few consequences. It seems that some of use are no longer able to act responsibly at all.

We need to recapture the Dunkirk spirit- and take control of our own lives. Acting defeated is two thirds the way to being defeated. Our country faces serious problems, but these can be tackled, if we understand what we need to do. Leadership is not imposing ones will upon others, as Gordon brown or David Cameron would wish, but persuading others of the relevance and rightness of ones own point of view.

The sense of defeat is a failure of leadership. The consequences of this failure will end Mr. Brown's political career- eventually.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Terminal 5 is a fiasco in so many ways, showing off how deficient we have become in so many aspects of our society:

1) corporate: BA has done a total disservice to the UK's reputation and did little to make up for it. They treat their customers like rubbish knowing they have a new monopolistic terminal. And they do nothing to help. Shameful.

2) corporate 2: BAA has helped to create this nightmare and has said little to nothing -- and has made problems so much worse.

3) work ethic: sadly, the British worker now just don't do what they are paid to do. This is why companies are hiring Poles and other Eastern Europeans. Instead of complaining when things get difficult, why not try to keep working?

4) innovation: what innovation? T5 is an instrument of huge embarrassment to British engineering and design. It's a mess, from Gordon Ramsay's "inedible" steak to the luggage belts. Unfortunately it shows off the lack of innovation left in the UK these days.

Yes, Cicero, Brits need to reclaim a spirit of "can-do" and not just sit back and wish New Labour can either spin it away or import it away.

Newmania said...

Speak for yourself I `m feeling pretty chipper . The credit splurge is because people are hard up not stupid.I have always argued that the tax payer , especially that one income family group , is never far from zero and all this supposed prosperity has been illusory .

We have always been useless at big things but brilliant at small and medium sized cooperative things . The Normans built big useless castles and cathedrals we invented Parliament and created a literary tradition that soars above the Gothic arches in the mind. It must be awfully frustrating for the modernising progressive to find himself herding cats time after time . I like it .


There are some things I rather like in this piece which is , as always , a pleasure to read. I do wish you would stop confusing electoral accountability with handing an even more disproportionate amount of power to minorities in the centre. You would lose a referendum on PR and you know and you are actively seeking to subvert democracy by looking for a deal without a referendum.

I think the answer on Political disengagement is to let a load more money in. There are down sides true but at the moment we are in a glittering X Box world aith a 19th century drizzly vestry Political life. It all tends to reinforce the elitist language and exclusivity of the political class.


Bring on the show . Lets have some fun.

Anonymous said...

Is terminal 5 a plot by the irish - boss of BA or revenge for armada by spanish BAA ?

Discsusted grange-over- sands