The end of our decline? We shall see

Douglas Hurd believes Britain's international esteem is at long last reviving. He may be over-optimistic
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The Independent Online
A moment of national reawakening or a tawdry piece of national self-delusion? Yesterday's "Britain in the World'' conference was founded on one stunningly simple, bold idea - Douglas Hurd's conviction that decades of seemingly unstoppable British decline have ended. We have touched bottom and are rising again.

In general, such grand establishment conferences tend to send the truth- seeker into an idiot daze. Over-stuffed with rich phrases, sentence-sated, word-glutted, the mind cannot help but boggle. This time, though, the central proposition was big enough, and omnipresent enough, to keep the thousand or so people present thinking hard. Is it true? Can it be so?

The end of decline is, after all, hard to square with the grey, dismal political environment in which we seem to be living, a mood of national gloominess lambasted by speaker after speaker - chap after chap urging us to roll up our sleeves, chuck the defeatism and get stuck in. There were German chaps ("Chin up!'' said the Bavarian Josef Joffe) and mustard- keen business chaps and, of course, Royal chaps. All seemed agreed that things were going well for the Brits and we should buck up.

If it is true that we have finally ended our century of decline, then this is not only good news, but very big news. So let us ponder the Hurd declaration. What would the end of decline mean? What would it feel like?

It would, presumably, mean that we stopped dropping down the world league table of economic powers. Given the rise and rise of the Asian nations, that is a tough proposition. A more plausible one might be that we stopped dropping down the league table of European countries and started climbing back up, overtaking Italy, and perhaps France. This is not impossible: there is a mood of growing confidence among British exporters. Inflation is still low. Industrial conflict is no longer a problem. We shall see.

There are other descriptions of the end of British decline, which are touted more enthusiastically because they are harder to measure - a growth in influence, perhaps, in Europe. There hasn't been much to show for it, but there is a change in mood on the Continent that may yet take the EU more firmly towards a British-advocated confederation of nation-states rather than a federal system. Again, we shall see.

What is certainly true, and what provided the motive force for yesterday's conference, is that Britain is doing far better than some of the gloominess at home suggests. When Hurd says that we have "overdone'' the self-criticism and despair about our place in the world, he is right, and his message is timely. But this message can easily topple over into self-deluding propaganda, curdling into a complacent checklist of institutions and achievements that fails to acknowledge our serious problems at home and misunderstands the national mood. For the establishment to say we are doing better than we realise is a good thing, and currently a true thing. The trouble is that the establishment is selling Britain abroad as a mature, pure and successful democracy. It is our public culture that is for sale and emulation - and anyone who suggests that this "asset" is tarnished is said to be part of an obscure conspiracy. And that is irritating nonsense.

Which brings us to the particularly irritating speech of the Prince of Wales. Now, it is bad enough to be lectured on the evils of "a mood of introspection'' by one of the most introspective public figures on these islands. It makes one wince just a little to be warned about Britain's image abroad by a man whose own behaviour has caused so much raucous laughter in cafs from Santorini to Santa Barbara. But it makes one's jaw drop to discover that the heir to the throne also thinks that no one, "not even the poorest and humblest amongst us, needs to `know the right people' to ensure that the system works fairly for them''. That must be a nice planet he lives on.

The Prince went on to describe the demons destroying British self-respect, attacking "fashionable theories'' that always seem to crop up in such speeches, but are never named or analysed; and "cynicism about our national life'' and "an approach to life which appears to seek only to denigrate, to decry and to destroy''. This is very like the Prime Minister's crusade against "fashionable sniping''. It is wet, self-pitying and out of touch.

It is also the language of further decline. The much that is wrong in this country cannot be elbowed smoothly to one side and blamed on a conspiracy of sneering trendies, while sensible chaps slap one another on the back and congratulate themselves on Britain's global opportunities.

The more you blow the trumpet about future British glory, the more you provoke further questions about the British present. You cannot blow on about our spotless democratic reputation without asking why, in that case, our politicians and political institutions are regarded with such apparent contempt by voters. You cannot go on, as Prince Charles did, about "our selfless public service tradition'' without asking yourself about the threat to that tradition through privatisation and agency management.

You cannot talk about "doing more to promote good government'' abroad, as Hurd did, without ruminating on the condition of government at home, where we await the conclusions of the Scott Inquiry and the Nolan Committee. You cannot say too much about standing up to dictators (and there was a lot of that) without queasily recalling that the Nigerian oppositionist General Obasanjo was not allowed to come to London for this conference, and that British protests have been muted, partly for commercial reasons. And above all, you cannot simultaneously proclaim the BBC as a great world asset, while bashing it at home as biased, disloyal and unprofessional.

All of which, no doubt, comes squarely into the Prince's category of fashionable denigration. The trouble is, it doesn't feel like that. Hard though it may be for ministers and members of the Royal Family to understand it, many people really think there is something wrong in the state of Britain. They don't get up, dunk the first teabag of the day, and ask themselves, "Who can I sneer at this morning?" They are genuinely concerned that the country is not run as well as it should be; to be so concerned is to be patriotic.

The truth is that the process of reversing decline has a way still to go. The economic improvements, the battle against inflation - these are real achievements, for which this Government can take credit. But there is a great task of political reform and improvement in public life still to be accomplished which directly relates to Britain's reputation and future.

I don't give a damn if foreigners believe our Parliament to be the best in the world. I know it is seriously defective and at times gutless when confronting the executive, and that is what matters. The end of a century of decline would feel good. That we don't feel good about ourselves has nothing to do with fashion or conspiracy; it reflects a simple truth, which is that the job of national revival is so terribly incomplete.

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