What is the state of the nation? Thinking about this phrase allows us to look down on ourselves as we are: a ragged and windy archipelago, without the means to feed itself, heavily populated; a place that once acted on the world but is now largely acted upon; dependent for its future upon technologies designed and built thousands of miles away; the former proud possessor of a world-envied democratic culture, too often today pitied or laughed at.
It would be easy to assess the state of the United Kingdom this spring with a long piddle of negativity. The strikes; the migration pressures; Brexit trade friction; the cost-of-living disaster. And so on. But if temperament is fate, then this writer is fated to work as an incurable optimist – a disability, for sure, in political commentary.
Thus, I offer a one-word, alternative assessment: recuperation.
Despite the daily headlines, we are very slowly getting better. The patient is weak, passive and prone. She remains whole – after the challenges from Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been no amputation. She’s alive and alerted but wasted – imagine the UK halfway up the Magic Mountain, stretched out in the early summer sun, in political and economic convalescence.
This is a metaphor, an old one. The nation isn’t a body, of course, but a body of people. Our population is around 67 million and forecast to grow to 74 million by 2050. By then there are forecast to be more of us than in France or Germany, despite their much greater land area.
As a people we are relatively crammed together, and also remarkably diverse. Of the increase in the UK population this century, 60 per cent is estimated to come from migration. The increases are not spread evenly. London is growing quickly, from about 8.6 million people now (an all-time high) to around 11 million by 2050. When you consider that the population of the capital was falling as recently as the late 1970s, this is some turnaround. By contrast, cities like Glasgow and Liverpool, and indeed whole countries – Scotland and Wales – would see their populations fall in absolute terms without immigration.
Like its people, the UK’s wealth is most unevenly spread. After all the rhetoric about levelling up, London and the south-east continues to dominate. High levels of immigration in the last decades of the 20th century and throughout this one will have other, less discussed, impacts. The white population has become one of the most atheistic and agnostic in the world; but religion is growing again thanks to migrants from the Indian subcontinent and among Christians from Africa.
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It’s very lucky for the modern British that we are part of an effective global market in food. The organisation Population Matters, which focuses on human density, biodiversity and sustainability, has estimated that for the UK population to be sustainable, it should be at around 20 million or below. That implies there are around 50 million “too many” of us. If we really wanted to try and support ourselves on our own land, we’d have to give up eating meat almost entirely and put up with a much less varied vegetable diet.
Our economic debility, our condition of being in recuperation, comes first from our lack of growth. Growth is a metaphor so fundamental to the way we think about life, coming from the Earth and moving upwards – that we barely notice it.
Today there is an anti-growth agenda, particularly on the radical environmental left; and alongside it, a body of economic thinking that suggests we should measure development not by material economic advance alone but by indices of human happiness. I have a lot of sympathy with this. We have become a shallower, sillier civilisation drenched in consumerism.
But we cannot shrug off the need for economic growth. Green thinking requires such a profound change in attitude about what a good life means as to be, at this stage, democratically impossible – a more static, more physically limited and restrained lifestyle that many millions would immediately reject.
Without economic growth, day-to-day living for so many people in so many communities becomes grimmer and harder. Societies that don’t grow at all begin to die.
The IMF forecast for 2023 put British growth at 0.3 per cent, the worst of any major economy in the world. The poor performance of Britain during this century is a problem observed by economists from the radical left all the way through to Liz Truss and the free-market radical right.
At a more immediate level, we see that our children expect a considerably worse standard of living than we enjoyed. The manufacture and design of future technologies – from electric cars and battery manufacturing, to the production of affordable solar panels – are either leaving this country or never started here at all. We see other countries – most obviously President Joe Biden’s United States with its Inflation Reduction Act, but the EU too – investing hugely in infrastructure and green energy, but no state-directed determination here.
Yes, we have economic strengths, such as a high employment rate and world-class life sciences, plus the City of London, acting as financial Jeeves to faster-growing parts of the world. But this nation doesn’t have the muscular economic strength to give ourselves the public services and private lives we have come to believe we deserve. To take one example: the NHS strikes are fundamentally a symptom of low growth.
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Alongside poor growth, the recuperating patient suffers from poor circulation. The past few years have seen a virtuous recognition that some areas – in the north of England in particular – have been allowed to fall behind economically in a way that is politically disgraceful. But there are huge differences between different communities in the same region as well. The House of Commons research department finds the north-east had the lowest median income before housing costs (£480) from 2017-18 to 2019-20, while London had the highest (£615). Households from a Pakistani ethnic group had the lowest median incomes before housing costs (£350) while households from an Indian ethnic group had the highest (£558).
That is slightly old data because of difficulties in collecting it during the pandemic, but it’s also worth noting that the Office for National Statistics believes inflation is experienced unequally: the lower your income, the higher your rate of inflation. To regain full health, the body needs both stronger muscles and better circulation. That means a higher minimum wage, pushing more civil service jobs outside London, and later down the line, wealth taxes to initiate a generational shift to younger, poorer Britons.
Weakened by heedless and at times deranged politics, there is a huge rebuilding and recovery job to be done. This includes all the obvious things, from the broken judicial and criminal system, which is desperately in need of investment, through to the health service, education and a green energy revolution. But let’s just focus on one apparently small issue that is growing all the time in salience.
Our rivers and beaches are filthy. In March it was revealed that the British government opted out of the United Nations Freshwater Challenge, a project calling on countries to restore freshwater ecosystems. Countries across Europe, plus the US and Canada are taking part – but not us.
The chairman of River Action described the decision as cowardly and which highlighted “the terrible ecological state of the UK’s rivers, which have been so severely degraded by unmitigated sewage and agricultural pollution”. According to the government’s Environment Agency, untreated sewage was discharged from overflow pipes around the coast of England and Wales for almost a million hours last year, and more than 140,000 times. Given that there are 62,000 miles of sewers in the UK in which storm water is mixed with sewage, the scale of the fix is huge. But unless we want to continue to wallow in our own filth, it has to be done.
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This job of rebuilding almost certainly requires a new government, probably a majority Labour one – but which perhaps reaches across to opposition parties. The Conservatives, after some heedless and embarrassing episodes, are organisationally and ideologically exhausted.
The bigger question is about the nature of the rebuilding required. Look at the vast range of challenges across the public sector, and our weakened economic performance, and its reasonable to think it’s all just too much for any administration to handle. What is needed cannot be done by top-down Westminster legislators alone. Gordon Brown was right to call for a radical pushing-out of power to cities and regions across the UK. The key thing is to unleash local energy and leadership in the cause of national rebuilding.
We are all going to have to be part of this age of recuperation. Those of us, generally older and luckier, who have accumulated a bit more wealth are going to have to put more of it on to the table for public investment. Others are going to have to give time and energy, to enjoy a little less leisure and spend a little more time helping their communities.
Now this might seem an absurdly idealistic or even priggish suggestion. But politics can no longer be just about voting. The history of the liberal and socialist movements was never simply about that – or not until very recently. It always included a belief in public service, from the self-help and temperance movements of the Liberal working classes, through to the out-reach projects in the East End of London, the Workers’ Education Association, the trade union-run pension schemes and holidays, and of course all the work of local government. To be, even vaguely, “on the left” meant accepting a personal obligation to others – not so different to faith groups.
Today we have been so thoroughly marketised – turned into people whose fundamental identity and hopes for fulfilment are expressed through shopping – that there might seem to be no way back. But the experience of the pandemic, with all those doing extra work to help the NHS and vaccination programmes, and the more recent rise of volunteering to run food banks, suggests there is a public spiritedness still alive that a proper reforming government could help mobilise.
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So far I’ve been concentrating on the nation’s need for bodily recuperation but we must also discuss the patient’s imagination, the wild and fevered British dreaming, which can never be safely ignored.
The number of people saying they’re very proud to be British has been falling, now to around 32 per cent – but in a very British way, you might think, the number of people saying they are “fairly” proud to be British is actually going up, now hovering around 35 per cent.
Of course, the raw numbers disguise huge attitudinal differences among age groups and ethnicities. Older voters, whether black, white or brown, are prouder of Britain; younger voters less so. My impression, poring over data and polling, is that the greatest hostility to the idea of Britain comes not from minority communities but from the Scots, and to a lesser extent, Northern Irish republicans and the Welsh – from longer-established groups who have an alternative national identity to try on if they choose to. The self-destruction of the SNP leadership has encouraged some in London to believe the threat of the break-up of the UK is over for our lifetimes. Looking at the support for independence among younger cohorts of Scottish voters, it would be wise to be cautious.
The views of younger voters across Britain are spreading ever outwards as the country becomes more liberal: well over half of voters now think being born here is not an important signifier of Britishness.
On race, gender and history, a huge gap between millions of younger Britons and older Britons has opened up. It’s an area where we have to be particularly cautious in our use of language. Right-wing zealots and hyper-liberal purists talk eagerly of a culture “war”.
If Labour wins the next election, the backlash will be ferocious. Looking on the right we can already see the first flickers of the next importation of American extremism – race politics, white power, authoritarian illiberalism. Brexit may be over but a lot of the anti-London, anti-modernity fury is still out there. On the left, a younger generation, having grown up without the material security capitalism used to offer, equally feels a corrosive contempt for the national culture.
From GB News to Stonewall, a culture war is what many people seem to want. The rest of us should ask ourselves, who benefits? Because this is fundamentally about identity, it’s visceral; once these arguments start, the middle ground evaporates.
Yet there is no necessary war, except in the inflamed imaginations of some journalists and politicians. There is plenty of lively and rational disagreement about, for instance, the meaning of empire and about how we treat people who are genuinely confused about their gender identity. Much of what is now airily dismissed as “woke” is simply a sense that in a more multicultural, varied country, we need to be particularly thoughtful, particularly kind.
It’s as much about politeness as it is ideology – getting on together, not going out of our way to offend. It’s less about hyper-liberalism than something long-standing in the British tradition – neighbourliness. For us, in these times, the habit of tolerance could prove a hidden strength.
To exploit it, however, we need to ensure we don’t import a rigid checklist of righteousness from an increasingly chaotic United States. In charting how we in Britain live together, we don’t need instructions from outside. Similarly, we must never ignore incivility and bullying just because they come with claims of victimhood.
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British history is another conflict zone in the national imagination. We have gone from the purblind, rosily self-indulgent view of the empire when I was growing up in the 1960s, as a benign spreader of the rule of law, railways and the principles of Whig parliamentary democracy, to more or less its opposite: an entirely grim account of a murderous, hypocritical and racist land-grab by psychopaths in wigs.
The way through is a patient, open-minded historicism, which weaves together the stories of the colonised, alongside the colonisers; those from whom land was taken as well as those who took it. It would follow the money, and take due account of the destruction of vital records as the empire retreated. In this accounting we will find that the British, alongside every other dominant nation in history, used a temporary technological and organisational advantage boldly and selfishly to exploit less advantaged peoples for their own enrichment. The speed of industrial advance at the time made our story more dramatic, but it isn’t an unusual one.
The empire didn’t last very long. As one of those new historians, Charlotte Lydia Riley, points out in her new book Imperial Island, the British empire reached its greatest territorial extent less than a century ago, in 1929. Today we are essentially going through a reckoning with the 20th century. Even so, the end of empire being followed so quickly by the end of imperial self-congratulation, feels to many in an older generation almost like losing a war – a profound trauma and time of unhappy self-reflection.
Nothing in this needs to destroy us unless we wish it to. The patient tosses and turns in her fever dreams but wakes to know herself to be an essentially civil, law-abiding, tolerant and moderate body of people. We are still a hard-working country where we mostly try to look after one another – we are not nearly as dangerous, certainly not as self-hating, as part of our distorted media mirror suggests.
Resilience is going to be a big part of our politics in the next decade or two. The next government is more likely to be defined by future threats and jolts, from artificial intelligence, climate shifts or a new pandemic, than by today’s policy debates. We need to be more strongly protected against enemies such as Russia, busily researching how to cut our undersea web of energy and communications cables; and we need to reinforce, protect and where necessary replace those fragile webs. Onshore and offshore, there is an awful lot to do.
So this must be – there is no choice – a time of political rebuilding, when we will be less dominated by and less forgiving of self-indulgent political disruptors. We can get to a place where we cease to think of ourselves as a unique global power but have become a more modest and self-knowing nation – protecting ourselves with our neighbours and friends, for sure, but no longer careering out across the world to impose our will elsewhere. Others may see this as a failure of ambition, a lack of boldness. I see it as the path to decent normality and a happier country, the gentle slope down from the Magic Mountain.
This essay was delivered as the State of the Nation Lecture in Cambridge on 23 April, for the 20th anniversary edition of Cambridge Literary Festival, run in association with the New Statesman.
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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown