Late last week I attended the funeral of my father’s first cousin. Mollie was 101 years old and I had known her all my life – or at least I thought I had. What I did not know, and only learned at her funeral, was that she had served as a cypher officer for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force during the Second World War, encoding top security messages for generals Eisenhower and Montgomery as they planned the D-Day landings. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government, but declined to accept it because she did not feel she had deserved it. Not once, during the rest of her long life, did I hear her talk about her wartime service.
Mollie was typical of her generation: modest, self-effacing and imbued with a deep sense of duty. She was also one of the last. The Queen died in September, aged 96. The last “Dambuster”, George “Johnny” Johnson, died on 7 December, aged 101. Which begs the question: to whom do we look now for inspiration? Who sets the example that we would like our children to follow?
It is a question I struggle to answer. The England football team, perhaps? It crashed out of the World Cup on Saturday (10 December), but it did so with dignity, grace and courage, while Harry Kane accepted full responsibility for missing that crucial penalty. Or Ben Stokes’s England cricket team, which is playing and winning with such gay abandon in Pakistan?
It is a lot easier to identify those who are debasing our public life – most obviously the dreadful political leaders that we have suffered over recent years.
They have professed to champion “British values” while practicing intolerance, unfairness, xenophobia and division. They have talked of patriotism, wrapped themselves in the Union flag and bragged of “global Britain”, while raising the proverbial drawbridge, inciting their base with tawdry jingoism and running the country into the ground. They have extolled the rule of law while breaking it, the sovereignty of parliament while circumventing it, freedom while curtailing it.
Rishi Sunak is a distinct improvement on his predecessors, but Westminster has become a place where reckless ideology has supplanted cautious, responsible pragmatism, and where “moderation” and “compromise” have been transformed into dirty words. It has become a place where lies trump truth, venality is rife, and cronyism blatant.
The ministerial code has been routinely ignored. Ethics advisers have resigned in despair – or are no longer appointed. Principles are rare, shame even more so. Mediocrities rise through rabble-rousing. Those forced from high office (they seldom resign) cash in on their disgrace. Self-promotion has become the be-all-and-end-all, while able and decent MPs have been purged or are quitting politics in disgust.
Beyond politics there is the monarchy, now shorn of a much loved and hugely respected Queen. Charles and Camilla inspire mixed feelings at best. William and Kate are admirably dutiful, but Harry and Meghan scarcely know the meaning of that word.
Famous only for being famous, the privileged young couple epitomise the self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandising age in which we live. They shirk their responsibilities. They blame everyone but themselves for perceived slights and injustices. They claim to be victims, but happily accept nearly $100m to dish dirt on the royal family.
The dashing prince and his beautiful bride had the power to do so much good, but have instead chosen to use their celebrity for destructive purposes. They savage the monarchy. They could have encouraged Britain’s slow, imperfect but undeniable progress towards greater racial harmony, but have instead done the opposite.
The list goes on. Our right-wing tabloid press has long since ceased to be interested in truth, preferring to spew hatred and propaganda. Those who offend the prevailing orthodoxies of the left are lynched on social media. Striking nurses certainly deserve some sympathy, but not those railway workers and Border Force officers who seem bent on inflicting maximum misery on the public by withdrawing their services over Christmas.
It is time, perhaps, for Britain to shed its illusions of greatness and take a long hard look at itself. We have become a country where the rich grow ever richer while millions of our citizens are sinking deep into poverty; where the NHS, the police, the judicial system and other vital public services are precariously close to collapse; where trust in our political institutions is perilously low, and social cohesion is disintegrating.
We are – shockingly – a G7 country in which food banks are overwhelmed by demand, people may quite literally freeze to death this winter, and women are selling their bodies to feed their children.
We desperately need political and constitutional reform, as Gordon Brown’s commission on the UK’s future argued last week. We need moral regeneration too. We need the humility to acknowledge that we have lost our way and are in deep trouble. We need to rediscover a sense of duty and service and helping others. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I’d suggest that we need to embrace anew the values of Mollie’s generation.