If we are now beginning to feel good about ourselves, we have good reason

Human beings are not moved by GDP alone. We have to have faith in our culture as well as our material wellbeing
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The Independent Online

We are comfortable with ourselves, aren't we? It was hard, walking the streets of London this bank holiday, to come away with any other conclusion. The golden jubilee has become a focus for the genuine celebration of our good fortune – a sharp contrast to the tacky and forced celebration of the Millennium in the Dome. The Millennium was everyone's and we had to pretend to enjoy it too. The jubilee is ours.

We are comfortable with ourselves, aren't we? It was hard, walking the streets of London this bank holiday, to come away with any other conclusion. The golden jubilee has become a focus for the genuine celebration of our good fortune – a sharp contrast to the tacky and forced celebration of the Millennium in the Dome. The Millennium was everyone's and we had to pretend to enjoy it too. The jubilee is ours.

But why do we feel comfortable? Many other countries of the rich developed world clearly don't. A year ago we re-elected our government with a huge majority. By contrast, in several European countries the voters have recently thrown their governments out – and with large minority votes for protest movements, in particular the far right. Elsewhere in the developed world, in Japan, the economy totters and the support for the supposedly reformist Prime Minister has plummeted. And even in the United States, where there is certainly material contentment, there was the tension of an election that was in effect tied, and then the inevitable sense of anxiety after 11 September. Amid the patriotism there is the puzzlement: why would people hate us so?

Our own contentment is in contrast, too, to our attitudes at both the Coronation and silver jubilee. In economic terms, the Queen's reign divides neatly into two halves: 25 years of relative failure and 25 of relative success. In 1952 the exhaustion of the war lingered. The physical devastation was evident in the bombsites around St Paul's. The papers wrote optimistically of a new Elizabethan age, but the reality that gradually dawned on those of us who were children then was that we had been told a lie. Relative decline meant – to take just one example – that we could only take £50 abroad in foreign currency each year when we went on holiday.

As it turned out, the silver jubilee in 1977 was framed by two events that ended this relative decline: the need to call in the International Monetary Fund in 1976 and the strikes of the "winter of discontent" of 1978-79. Prince Philip wisely noted that the celebrations of 1977 were less to do with the Royal Family and more because people needed to cheer themselves up. We had our revolution in 1979, throwing out not the royals but the leaders of the post-war political consensus.

In economic terms, that revolution has been a success. Much of our present contentment has, I'm sure, to do with our prosperity. GDP per head is now higher than that in France or Germany; then, it was lower. By the EU's measure, we have the lowest inflation in Europe; in the 1970s it was almost the highest. We have almost the cheapest mortgages, and (actually rather alarmingly) the highest house prices. Unsurprisingly, overall consumer confidence is at record levels.

In the face of all this material progress, we would have to be a pretty dour lot not to feel reasonably content.

But, I think, our self-confidence is not only economic, but also cultural. Human beings are not moved by GDP alone. We have to have faith in our culture as well as confidence in our material wellbeing.

Our culture – that web of language, music, art, sports, rituals, myths, ideas – is of course evolving along with the other changes that are taking place on these shores. We have had a dazzling glimpse of so many different aspects of that changing culture over the past four days. But self-confidence does not come from putting on a good show. We knew we could do that. It is something much deeper.

Language has a lot to do with it. Measured objectively, the last 50 years have seen an extraordinary period of conquest for the English language. It is not only the nearest thing to a global language that humankind has ever known. It is the first time since Latin that a language is spoken by more people as a second language than it is as a first. This is not particularly a British achievement. If anything it is more an American one, for the power of Hollywood has probably had more of an influence than the power of Britpop. In the end, though, it is simply a question of critical mass.

And it is, of course, the language of business. Many German and France multinational companies are now switching to English for all meetings. Roughly half the world's wealth is generated in countries where English is either the first language or is widely spoken. Our culture rides along with that. I doubt that J K Rowling, for all her genius, could have become the world's highest-paid author if she was not writing in English.

And with language goes ideas. The concepts of market liberalism that have swept the world over the past 20 years have as much to do with the US as with Britain, maybe more. But we can take a bow over one key aspect of that process. The fact that, say, Eastern Europe's state-owned telephone services and airlines are being privatised is down to the power of an idea developed here.

It may seem ironic that some people in England have ceased to endorse a concept that has had such an influence on the rest of the world. But that is the luxury of self- confidence.

Indeed, there are so many cultural exports from England that we tend to forget that they happened here first. Cultural self-confidence lies in inventing something, giving it to the world and seeing others change it, develop it into something that we alone could never have created. Think golf. Think – this week of all weeks – football. What is so abnormal is that we should think of this as normal.

To be international is to be normal. We regard it as normal that more people fly through Heathrow from other countries than any other airport; or that more people fly though the London airports than any other city. We regard it as normal that there should be more foreign nationals working in London and the South-east than any other place on earth. We regard it as normal that there should be more foreign banks in London than anywhere else in the world. The multiculturalism of this jubilee seems to us, well, normal.

Could we blow it? Might, in another quarter-century, this long weekend of celebration seem like Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee of 1897 – a celebration of a global role that was soon to be swept away? Could we become ill-tempered and narrow-minded, angry with each other and the world, as to some extent we were in 1977? Could we become disillusioned, as we did after 1952?

Yes, of course we could. We may have made some economic progress in the past 25 years, but there are huge challenges ahead. We may at present feel culturally on a roll, but we could lose our self- confidence there, too. We may have managed to turn failure around, but we have also had a run of luck. North Sea oil, reasonably competent governance under both parties, the rise of the English language – all these have contributed to this sense of ease. So we are right to party. But we are perfectly capable of mucking things up – we know how to do that, too. Just let's try not to just yet.

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