Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Looking for Hope and not Fear

The political discourse of Britain has become gloomy of late. Rational assessments of the position of the country are being drowned in a flood of negativity and invective. Perhaps it is particularly bad at the moment, as we see the bad news from Japan and Libya filling our screens, but I don't really think so. The fact is that the Brits seem to have become more than a little Eeyore-ish in recent years. For example, despite the clear success of the construction work on the Olympic park, were are encouraged to complain that the games will crowd out London, that things won't be that good and so on. In fact London seems set to give a games that will have a lot more heart than the vainglorious Beijing Olympics, and a lot more commercial nous than the incomplete Athens Olympics. Britain is not a failing country- it is a modern and successful country, for all the various problems that we face.

Yet, of course there is the terrible word "still", as in Britain can "still" do things. The implication is obvious: that once we were better, that once our pre-eminence was unquestioned; that we are country in decline, with no means of recovery. The fact is that this backward looking vision to a mythical past is what taints the whole world view of the UK. Political commentators, like the idiot Simon Heffer, can write eulogies to the pre-decimal monetary system actually complaining that we made the change! This is conservatism ad absurdam. If these people had their way, then Britain would be fossilized in some fabricated 1950's past. Instead of the clean air act, Heffer would have us retain the pea soup fogs (in reality smogs) that were so poisonous that thousands of people were killed and millions more had their health undermined. The fact is that steam trains may have been pretty, but they were staggeringly inefficient and thoroughly dangerous- but in his heart of hearts Heffer resents any change and would thwart it if he could.

The nature of our lives implies that things change, and the conservatism of either right, or indeed the Trade Union driven conservatism of the left tries to deny this natural process. Instead of pretending that all change is bad, and therefore becoming anxious or even depressed when it inevitably occurs, our political leaders (and commentators) would be better off putting forward a positive, hopeful, case for change. Instead of pretending that our membership of the EU is an overwhelming evil, it would be better if we adopted a genuinely sceptical approach: seeking to shape the organisation in a positive way. Yet the so-called euro-sceptics are not merely sceptical, they are hostile, and in their determination to paint the EU black, they lose the intellectual argument.

Likewise the case of electoral reform is intellectually unanswerable, but by promoting fear and a certain sense of helplessness, the "antis" play on a fear of change- any change. This is dangerous.

Despite the Prime Minister's own opposition to electoral reform, it is hard to tar him with the same brush as the antediluvian Luddites of the Telegraph. His vision of building social trust, which he calls the "big society" is indeed a programme that looks more towards hope than fear. The idea that people will create community initiatives because they want to, rather than because they are told to is actually rather laudable, despite the Bronx cheer it has received from commentators across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile the grit that Nick Clegg has shown in the face of virtually intolerable abuse is also a sign of political courage. The speech he made at the Lib Dems spring conference was characterised by the media as somewhat defensive, but I did not detect this. Rather I saw a leader that was facing pretty bleak times determined to maintain focus and eventually to lead his party and his country into better times.

Naturally such optimism was greeted with a cynical smirk by those who prefer a mythical past to the opportunity of the future.

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