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14 November 2010

UK: why stay?

Ireland’s youth are fleeing economic meltdown – could Britain be next?

By Sholto Byrnes

On a beautiful day this last summer I had lunch with an old friend, a well-known Labour activist and journalist, whose words cast a chill on our conversation even as the sun beat down on the Persian repast in which we were indulging on the lower slopes of Hampstead. “People have no idea how bad it’s going to get,” he said of the austerity measures he feared were about to be imposed. So bad, he told me, that he and his family were considering emigrating. “We’re seriously thinking about moving to Canada.”

Canada? Inevitable jokes about the tedium of that country aside, that seemed pretty steep. This is a man who has been a correspondent for an international television news network, a frequent columnist in the British press, and who, if he stays, stands a very good chance of becoming an MP at some point, and one sure to enjoy either swift promotion to the front benches or notoriety and respect as one of the leaders of the awkward squad. If he thought then that prospects were that gloomy, what hope for the rest of us whose CVs may not possess quite such lustre?

Especially now, and especially viewed from abroad. From the countries I’ve been in recently – Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Singapore, balmier climes where the comfort of the heat is matched in some way by a greater ease of living: no one’s too poor to afford a bowl of rice and chicken good enough to grace the tables of London’s pricy restaurants – the news from home seems unrelentingly grim. Students battling police and chanting “Tory scum” in protest at university funding cuts. The street lights going out all over Britain as councils struggle to deal with their reduced budgets. Jobless people to be forced to undertake unpaid work, such as picking up litter, in order to qualify for unemployment benefit.

It feels like the harshest measures of the Thatcher years without even the shallow materialist promise of the “loadsamoney” culture that some might benefit while others suffer. And as I sit on a balcony watching the lights of the Kuala Lumpur Petronas Twin Towers twinkle at me over this relaxed but buzzing city, having just taken a family member to a private hospital (single room per night – under GBP 50) to receive the best care a medical staff trained in the UK can provide, I wonder: why am I going back?

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Why go back to a country so incognisant of its decline into at best middle-ranking status that its leader dare lecture China on why it ought to be a liberal democracy? Why celebrate returning to a state whose younger generations have to face the unpalatable future of settling for less, much less, than their profligate parents took for granted? What value such a country’s much-vaunted civilisation and literature when it is soon to close so many of its libraries and consign so many of its arts organisations to penury? And just what does its equally-proud tradition of tolerance mean when both government and opposition now shamelessly court the anti-immigration vote?

What’s worse is that this is only the beginning. Look what is happening in Ireland. Today’s Observer reports that the country’s youth are fleeing abroad “as economic meltdown looms”, and many there think that the UK could be only nine to 12 months behind suffering the same situation – an analysis Alistair Darling and Ed Balls appear to share.

I will go back, of course (not least because my return ticket says I will). I, my wife and young son have a flat there, we have lives, work, family, friends, histories, connections, not to say obligations, commitments, interests – and it’s home. But after this last bout of travels it feels like we will be going back to a much meaner, smaller place, a country whose generosity has shrunk and whose spirit has tightened. A place whose government knows the price of everything, and knows that it should be cut, and the value of… well, not enough.

And then I think: Canada? It wouldn’t be my first choice. But Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi – or, for that matter, Muscat, Beirut, Jakarta? Well, why not? Frankly, why stay?