Manic mood swings damage the nation's health

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WHEN was the last time that an armful of newspapers reeked so heavily of pessimism about the state of Britain as they did this weekend? The dirty littleness of the 'Camillagate' tape seemed to blend seamlessly into depressive accounts of collapsing or corrupt institutions and failing sectors of the economy. Maybe it seemed particularly striking after spending a few days in argumentative, optimistic Washington. But it was neither surprising nor a rare coincidence: there is a cynical weariness about that is hard to ignore.

By far the most eloquent of the recent chroniclers of doom is James Buchan. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he juggled various predictions for this country, from right-wing revolution to continued decline during which 'middle-class wealth will be liquidated to pay for terminal health care. The destitution of the unemployed will be almost matched by the poverty of those in work.' Towards the end of his piece he concluded, too, that 'We British have become mean sods.'

Those sentiments, or recognisable variants of them, are now commonplace. You hear them in the pub, at parties, in railway carriages - almost anywhere two or three thinking Britons huddle together. In its violence such pessimism can mirror the swaggering self-assertion and jingoism of the Eighties. It is as if the national psyche is failing to adapt to the post-imperial, modest status of modern Britain, and is undergoing wild manic-depressive mood swings. Like the old Tory triumphalism, the current doom-mongering has gone too far, and become a danger itself.

Above all, if despair about the failure of today's political leaders spills over into despair about politics generally, then we throw away the only remedy we have. It is true, for instance, that our system of government desperately needs reform. But with will-power and imagination, it could be reformed thoroughly within a decade - there is no sub-Hegelian force of history that makes it an impossible dream.

It is true, too, that the House of Windsor seems close to collapse. But the monarchy ceased to matter when we started treating it like the scandal-driven soap opera it has now become. Outside Britain, it is regarded with a mixture of sentimental interest and bemusement, reinforcing the image of this country as a romantic has- been. If the most ardent of royalists have been forced to accept that the Windsors are not a race of sexless demigods, but as silly and fallible as the rest of us, then so much the better. But the mere idea that the dirty, petty 'Camillagate' is at the heart of national decline is an insult. If Britain's worth can be diminished by a middle-aged man burbling about tampons, Britain is worth nothing at all.

Much more significant is the economy. But here, too, fatalism holds sway. As someone who was brought up in the Church of Scotland, it is impossible for me not to wonder at the masochistic economic Calvinism that places other countries in a state of grace, but condemns Britain to eternal failure. Note the chop- licking enthusiasm as we argue whether the recession is justified punishment for Naughty Eighties, or part of a long pattern of irreversible decline, or both.

Like most of the rest of Europe, Britain's economy is sick. Here, just in case this column should fall below its statutory 'depressing facts quota', is the testament of Patrick Giles, secretary of the Europe Asia Trades Agreement: 'There are twice as many containers coming out of the Far East, and vessels travelling from Europe can be one-third empty.' He also notes that European exports are often bulk, low-value products, and that this is causing freight-rate problems.

The only effective responses to this, however, are long term: the much higher educational standards, better training and more mobile, classless culture that most politicians say they favour. They need sustained policies, pursued with determination over years. How likely is that while we are stuck in the boom-bust cycle of euphoria today and depression tomorrow?

If chattering Britain has decided that the country can no longer make things and must live off tourism and merchant banking, will Tory politicians bother to struggle to divert scarce national resources into industrial training? No, the evidence suggests, they won't. In the good-times euphoria of the Eighties, it seemed a low priority, too. At least then people began to look cautiously at starting businesses. But how many teenagers alert to our current mood of fatalism want to become entrepreneurs today?

This also affects foreign policy. Until Britain builds a bigger economy, its status is bound to continue declining. It will not be possible for ever to disguise economic weakness with the roar of Tornados. Military cuts will see to that. A Falklands task force will, for instance, soon become an impossibly expensive operation to mount. At some stage in the next decade, we will probably suffer the humiliation of losing our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Sad, yes. But there are worse places to live than in a middling European country prepared to do its bit within multinational organisations but living, on the whole, quietly and peaceably. There is, anyway, no choice. Nostalgic teeth-gnashing can only make the transition more painful.

Nothing to fear but fear itself? No, there is plenty to fear and more to be depressed about. But there comes a point when tough-minded realism turns rancid. Pessimism without a political programme equals mere fatalism.