Dan Harrison examines the nature of Britain's decline
Image Description: Johnson and Sunak standing outside N.10, surveying British decline
Boris Johnson’s announced resignation has rescued the British nation from its momentary dalliance with Trumpland. He had sought to maintain his government with a single peer as a minister in the Department of Education and one minister instead of the usual five in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but there is little to celebrate.
This nation’s decline began in a positive sense.
The British Empire collapsed and so all of the repression and suffering that were its accomplices died with it too. Britain lost an empire and freedom, democracy and the nation-state were the victors of a long, overdue transition; finally peoples across the world could breathe with a new found sense of hope and optimism. Self-determination had triumphed.
The American Secretary of State Dean Acheson articulated pointedly in 1962 that, “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.” I wish in my heart that Britain’s problem today was merely that it did not have a role. It would be delightful if the problem that Britain had was that it had become a superfluous, wistful headteacher who remembered that he once had classes to teach.
But the radical truth is buried by our reversion to British exceptionalism, inspired by our belief that our imperial and war waging history equips the nation today to lead the world in 2022.
But here is the truth, a naked, terrifying truth that dares not speak its name in the Commons or on Fleet Street or in N.10. Today, Britain faces not merely stagnation, malaise, even severe failure, but a graceful, regal and noble decline, befitting a nation with a monarchy and still ninety-two hereditary peers hanging on in the House of Lords.
The fundamental problem that Britain faces is that the challenges, whether it be in housing or education that we face are deep-rooted, structural problems requiring systematic, well-thought through and joined-up responses. That is part A of the fundamental problem. Part B is that we possess a media and political class who live in a world of absolute, but heavenly ignorance about how change must be set free and individual potential emancipated.
There exist what I call the ‘forever problems,’ policy challenges that Britain has faced for decades, known about for decades, debated and deliberated over for decades and yet the raging, fiery injustice that these challenges promote lingers and festers.
The first forever problem is our chronic inability to build the required 300000 homes a year so that supply can keep pace with demand. How can a nation describe itself as ‘Global Britain’ and as ‘world leading’ in so many areas when it cannot house its people? How can it be that a nation that boasts of its alliance with Ukraine allows Ukrainian refugees in the UK to become homeless, because local authorities do not have enough temporary accommodation?
Another forever problem is our seeming inability to create an effective vocational education system. It still does not equip the 49% of students who do not go to university with a path to prosperity and with a sense of self-worth, so that when they look at themselves they see not wasted potential, unintelligence or failure, but an inordinate pride that they can make with their hands what I as a university student can only see as a figment of my imagination.
The forever problem in the economy is our unceasing failure at waging war on poverty. Instead war is waged on the poor. It was once written by Anthony Crosland in 1956, the political theorist and Labour politician, that it would be relative poverty that would most concern us in Britain in the future. But in 2022 there are 2.173 million regular users of food banks, an exponential increase from 2010, when there were 40000. We are witnessing the return of an unforgiving absolute poverty.
The other forever problem in the economy is that we have found it an impossibility to create an economy powered not by low-skill, low-wage sectors, but by highly productive and innovative industries.
We need less gig economy and zero-hour contracts and more gigabit broadband and net-zero.
We must end our addiction to debt-fuelled consumption that means that today the British economy is a giant leisure centre that craves not face-to-face interaction, but face-to-face extraction, where more coffee and hairdressing are proposed as the portents of prosperity.
Our forever problem in the NHS is that we have a health service that is not national, but instead a postcode lottery, where every winter there is unbearable pressure on A&E departments. Today, there are over 40000 vacancies in the NHS nursing workforce alone.
Our forever problem in our military is that we debate about numbers, number of men, number of aircraft carriers, as though warfare is like a game of Battleships. The problem is that we have not thought sufficiently about the answer to the question of what is our military for? Who do we seek to protect and from whom?
It does not matter who the future Conservative party leader and Prime Minister is, because these forever problems will limp on like a wounded lion.
The hardest part of this national story for myself is that despite the stream of obstacles, Britain still has pockets of pulsating potential.
Look at this country’s universities, our multi-cultural society and breathtaking diversity, our cultural products from theatre and TV to the Premier league, our remaining advanced manufacturing firms such as Rolls Royce or JLR. Too much potential wasted.
Celebrate Johnson’s departure, because what was a joke had become a sick, twisted joke in light of how he dealt with the Pincher allegations and in its place we may have bland, boring, but less corrupt centrism. But if anybody believes that this turn of events somehow solves our forever problems and unlocks the frustrated, seething, wondering potential of this nation, then you are stuck in a mode of day-dreaming that is so far from reality that it sounds like a distant drumbeat over the cliffs.
If Britain faces another twenty-two years of decline, then that will be it. Our problems will be too deep-rooted to uproot. The decline will become inexorable, irreversible and I am so sad to say it, but terminal.
If decline is left unconquered then it will become our master.
I do not apologise for my compendium of impending doom. I believe, as the civil rights activist James Baldwin did, that the most important right that any patriot must exercise is to perpetually criticise their country. This is not because you seek to mock or scorn your society, but because you seek to make your contribution, however slight or small, to its progress.
Our problems are overwhelming and desperate. If we act with courage and conviction, dedication and determination, ingenuity and imagination, then we may overcome our demise. Above all, we must try and if that fails, try again, because despair is not the brother of failure, but inaction.
Doing nothing, as governments continue to do, is an active decision.
Perhaps it will then be written, if we are armed with fortune and fortitude, that there was a nation called Britain that was not a declining nation, but a daring one. A nation, after much tumult, that dared to dream, dared to fail and dare I say it, dared to succeed.