Now the good news - people are turning soft

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The Independent Online
SOMEBODY asked me to write down things which we should be happy about. Journalists hate that sort of commission. It reminds them of those readers who pursue them with the untiring complaint: 'Why do you never print the good news?' Still, counting blessings at a year's end is good for the soul.

The laziest way to count blessings is to define the glass as half full rather than half empty: to point out how much worse things might have been, and what disasters did not take place. That kind of answer preserves the stylish pessimism which journalists affect. There certainly is a case for negative celebrations. For almost all readers, the most cogent grounds for happiness (suitably laced with guilt and anguish) are that you live in the Northern Hemisphere and not in Africa, Latin America or southern Asia. But there are also positive blessings.

The most important is that the human race continued to grow softer, even more cowardly. This applies mostly to the Northern Hemisphere, again, but as that is where most of the world's destructive force is parked, that is where it is most welcome. Soldiers grew steadily more intelligent and therefore less ready to risk death. Their commanders, recognising this, became more reluctant to have battles unless they could win them at almost no cost and in almost no time. Politicians, in turn, dithered even more about the resort to force. The first two of those changes were emerging as far back as the Falklands War, in 1982. The third - the squeamishness of governments - is more recent. The rise of cowardice has its cost: Bosnia is apparently to be left to its fate. But in general it means that people are becoming gentler, more aware of the preciousness of life, more disobedient.

The second thing to be happy about is that nuclear weapons continue quietly to diminish. My friend Mary Kaldor, who has given most of her life to the cause of nuclear disarmament, had the joy a few years back of watching Soviet missiles blown to pieces on the Kazakhstan steppe. Since then, although there are still too many warheads and nuclear mavericks outside the corral, the broad picture is that control is increasing while stockpiles are reducing. The Cold War is over, and the troop trains are heading home. Three generations of British or Russian soldiers lived in those old Nazi barracks in Germany. Now they are being converted for Romanian asylum-seekers and Bosnian refugees.

My third happiness is about liberty, now being merrily misused for the third year running in the lands between Magdeburg and Vladivostok. Liberty is meant to be used wildly. It was never intended to compensate for unemployment and collapsing living standards, but it is the indispensable weapon in the fight for a better life. I think of how I used to tramp blackened, peeling streets where most passers-by eyed me with fear, to meet somebody who would turn up the radio while he whispered - and I have no regret for the stabilities of the Cold War. Yes, it was a long-lasting World Order. But it was an Order which we had a duty to disobey.

In the course of 1992, it became evident that the 1980s had at last come to an end. It was a painful end, but extremely welcome. The mores of giddy, easy money-making were finally wiped out by the recession, and the British middle classes, cutting down on champagne, went back with some relief to muddling through, grumbling and drinking acid white wine or Nescafe. Like the Russians, the English have traditonally assumed that any conspicuous consumer must be a crook. The eighties image of the yuppie as moral hero required a difficult suspension of disbelief, now gratefully abandoned.

Thatcherism is dead at last, in other words. For years, some of us tried to point out that there was a direct connection between the state's withdrawal from economic management and the rapid increase of centralised state power in Britain. The freer the market, the more police it needs. Now that connection is generally recognised - better too late than never? - and so is the human cost of that period. As in the matter of war, people are turning soft: the call for more compassion and for a state which defends the poor and helpless is challenging market brutalism in both eastern and western Europe.

With this goes the revival of Keynes. What the nineties want him to have said is not always what he did say. (It was a Polish economist, shocked by this new craze, who told me: 'You Brits forget that Keynes presupposed a free market economy as the arena for state intervention]') But the Keynes restoration, accurate or not, is also a restoration of energy and intelligence to public life. Forget the 'blind laws of economic necessity'] Something can be done] Another happiness, though a fragile one, is the arrival of Green thoughts in the general consciousness. Somewhere in the thickest political skull there now lurks the awareness that, unless concerted international action is undertaken, the earth will degenerate into a bald pebble too hot to touch.

The British themselves have some things to be happy about. One mercy is that, in spite of a harsh decade, they have remained much the same. Outside the city centres, this is still a kind and easy-going place where people do not much bother what the neighbours are up to. This decency is related to a spectacular lack of ambition, especially in England, which exasperates reformers but - even now - keeps out the frosty climate of a true 'achievement society'. It is a happy thing that this present government has become such a laughing-stock, and that the British have contrived to find each prominent member of the Cabinet so irresistably comic. This, too, is a return to normality.

Not everyone would agree that the disorder in the Church of England is a blessing. But it is, and so - except for the family concerned - is the monarchy's annus horribilis. When women cried for joy because men had decided to let them be ordained as priests, another rotten wall of authoritarian prejudice collapsed and the disestablishment (I would call it liberation) of Anglicanism came a little nearer. When Windsor burned and royal marriages came to bits, some people at least found that they could think more calmly and clearly about the British power system. Many more looked into the 'enchanted glass' of monarchy and suddenly could not see their own reflection any more. That was no tragedy, but a step towards growing-up.

One of the itches of growing older is impatience. I know for instance that the first-past-the- post election system will be scrapped, that Scotland will have Home Rule, that the epoch of Conservative governments is near its end, so why do we all have to wait? But meanwhile I have my own things to be happy about. This month, I was knocked off my bicycle but survived, quite unharmed, to receive a Polish decoration.

A little later, I was at the huge Home rule rally in Edinburgh. There was a happy red balloon ('Artists for Independence') caught in the branches of a tree. I made a wish. And at first gently, then more strongly, the balloon began to wriggle and struggle up through one net of twigs after another until it broke through, straight up and away into that frosty blue sky until I lost sight of it.