The strange case of Britain’s demise – The Economist – 12.12.22
A country that prided itself on stability has seemed to be in free-fall. Whodunnit? To answer this question, it is best to read all of the eleven page article and in particular its conclusion which now follows:
In the upstairs-downstairs, country-house vision of Britain, the country is a museum of class, with overlords surveying their lands and minions scurrying below stairs as they once did at Belton House. Famously, Disraeli wrote of “two nations”, the rich and the poor, as distinct as “inhabitants of different planets”.
England, especially, is indeed a class-ridden place, whose denizens still make snap judgments about each other’s backgrounds based on accents, shoes and haircuts. Too many at the bottom of the ladder cannot see a way up it. Some at the top still benefit from unearned deference. Politicians often share this binary outlook, thinking the business of government is to squeeze the rich and comfort the poor, or vice versa.
But Disraeli’s formulation is too crude for 21st-century Britain. After generations of muddling through, it is in large part a country of people who are not exactly poor but are by no means rich. Instead they are “just about managing”, as Mrs May, the last prime minister but two, described them.
Take Grantham, a constituency in which the average income in 2020 was £25,600 ($32,900), just below the national median. (This year, Britain’s GDP per person will be more than 25% lower than America’s, measured at purchasing-power parity.) Amid the cost-of-living squeeze, says Mr Hanbury at the food bank, not only households that rely on welfare benefits but nurses and teachers are coming unstuck: “People live so close to the edge.”
It is only a 70-minute train ride to London, but power in Westminster seems remote, reflects Father Stuart Cradduck of St Wulfram’s, a lovely medieval church behind Grantham’s low-slung high street. Lincolnshire, he says, feels like a “forgotten county”. Kelham Cooke, the leader of the local council, says young people who leave for university often don’t come back. Regional inequality is another old, hard problem that successive British governments have only desultorily tackled, watching on as London sucked in talent and capital and other places fell behind.
There is something to be said for drift; or, to put it another way, gradualism. A “highly original quality of the English”, Orwell wrote in 1947, “is their habit of not killing one another.” By slowly expanding the franchise and incorporating the labour movement into democratic politics, Britain avoided continental-style extremism in the 19th and 20th centuries. When liberalism perished elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s, observes Mr Bogdanor, it survived in Britain.
Compared with places such as France or Italy, where the far right is resurgent—or with ultrapolarised America—it is healthy in Britain still. Ms Truss’s stint in Downing Street was inglorious, but, Mr Bogdanor notes, she was removed quietly and efficiently, without riots or fuss. The flawed parliamentary system worked.
So drift can be benign. But it can also take you into a cul-de-sac—or off a cliff. In Britain it has led to economic mediocrity and disgruntlement, which in turn contributed to the yelp of Brexit and the desperate magical thinking of the mini-budget. Senile governments, self-inflicted wounds, the blowback of empire, corrosive global trends, the spectres of bygone leaders: they are all accomplices. But the main cause of Britain’s woe belongs less at a crime scene than in a school report. In the end, it didn’t try hard enough. ■
Here is all of the article in pdf. To read it, please click on this link:
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This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "The strange case of Britain’s demise"
GRANTHAM – Credit Nate Kitch