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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Heaven knows why we're so miserable now


At the party conferences, the air thickens with cavils and grievances, charges and accusations, moans and more moans by party members. Politicians either pander to the wailers and whiners or grovel. This week in Manchester, the never-satisfied will bully Tory frontbenchers, who will feel obliged to make false promises or announce unconsidered policies. Why so much aggro, you think, and how, in heaven's name, can you ever please British voters who are addicted to pessimism? During the Second World War, Brits used to say, "mustn't grumble". Now they do nothing but moan, as if to make up for that stoicism. Not to join in with this national mood of disquiet may even be regarded as unpatriotic.

Last week, a lifestyle survey of 10 nations put Britain bottom, below Poland even. The cost of living, working hours, holidays and sunshine were all compared. But I think it is our grouchiness that puts us down there.

In Egypt, they asked me why British people are so angry and down. In Jordan, Iraqi and Palestinian exiles were even more baffled. From over there, they see a country with an old and unassailable democracy, rule of law, an army which never oppresses the people, rights for all (at least in principle), an economy that still gives most people the chance to make a living even during painful recessions, low interest rates, long life expectancy, a brilliant NHS, stability, enterprise, extraordinary cultural productivity and freedoms they can only pine for. Many of them long to migrate to our shores, even now, after the disastrous Iraq war and our duplicitous dealings with murderous dictators.

And yet for millions of Britons their homeland is a pestilent swamp overrun by thieves and blackguards – of high and low status – unsavoury migrants, snaky politicians, dodgy bankers, rip-off businesses, EU dictators and horrible activists. OK, I'll admit it – I, too, have turned a little native and gripe too much. But like other audaciously buoyant immigrants, I also believe things will get better in Blighty, my cherished, wayward, difficult country. We have to believe. Maybe we should offer hope transfusions to those indigenous citizens we see lumbering around us, who are drunk on misery, bitter, restless, chronically dissatisfied, frustrated, suspicious and filling their tanks with formless anger.

It wasn't ever thus. While in Liverpool last week I went to the lively Bluecoat art and cultural gallery. This autumn, their big idea is a "Democratic Promenade" featuring artists and conversations with the public. On one wall were black and white pictures of a strike by school pupils in Liverpool in 1985 against Margaret Thatcher's YTS scheme. Their placards were intelligent messages of resistance, demanding real work, not state-designed non-jobs. They look as if they believe a better future is possible. Today even university students, our elite, believe ahead of them is only chaos and debt. Those kids who rioted were, perhaps, acting out that loss of faith in everything except things. Generic, lazy disillusionment leads to nihilism. By sucking up to "disaffected citizens", politicians are hastening this process. Soon our democracy itself will waste away like an unused limb.