We have always been a grey land, but once we believed in something

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The Independent Online
AT THE new year, I met a time traveller. He had left Britain 16 years ago for Africa and returned only a few months before. He had missed the entire Thatcher era of post-war history, and now he was measuring the United Kingdom of 1994 against that land which he had known so well until 1978.

It was utterly different, he said; an unfamiliarity stared at him from every conversation and every encounter. How did he mean? He hesitated for a moment: 'Nobody believes in anything any more.'

This required thought. Looking at him, I recalled that he had been working in one of those places where there are three kinds of people: the predators who have the guns; the great mass of their victims; and the very small group of unarmed helpers who live with the victims and try to alleviate their misery and despair. He had belonged to that third kind. I knew his sort, as does everyone who has experience of the Third World. That sort are believers. They believe in the innate goodness of human beings, in the power of righteousness to break open prisons, in the capacity of ordinary people to make a society where there is amity and justice.

But would you expect to find that quality of belief in Britain anyway? Surely it belongs to a hotter climate. Believers are found in places where a Maryknoll Sister walks alone past the barracks of the death squadron to comfort the poor and bereaved, or where peasants who have seen their olive-oil co-operative torched by the landowner's gunmen sit down and plan it all over again, or where condemned men address their firing- squad as 'brothers'. But I have used these exotic colours deliberately - misleadingly. For the truth is that, when that man left Britain, it was a grey land, but one not short of believers.

There was, first of all, plenty of mindless patriotic belief, which would not be very interesting if it had not diminished so far in the last 15 years. In 1978, most people here probably believed that Britain had the best system of government, the most compassionate state, the most brilliant scientists, the most stable and august monarchy, and even the best architects and theatre directors in the world. Then there was the widespread belief in the power of righteousness. Causes thrived. In those days, causes were not so much charities to relieve suffering as backroom crusades to overthrow evil all over the globe: in South Africa, in central America or Chile, in Cambodia, in all the wired-off sites where missiles were hidden or nuclear warheads stored.

Another kind of belief which survived then, though already a little battered, was faith in organisation. Most 'active citizens' (in the phrase later to be put about by Douglas Hurd) were members of trade unions. The point about unity being strength seemed too obvious to need labouring. All over were bustling, hopeful individuals who knew that anything could be done if you could hire a hall, get posters round, draw up rules and find a chairman who knew the difference between an amendment and a substantive resolution.

In the same way, there remained a belief that life was a matter of 'problems' which - once recognised and organised - could be 'solved'. The nation was still assumed to be almost omnipotent. It seemed, even in the later 1970s, that there were few economic or social problems a government could not solve by the application of will, reason and public money. Here again, organisation was the key. In spite of the increasingly wild events in the world economy, from the 1973 oil crisis onward, there was still belief that the human race, represented by its governments, was capable of guiding and controlling supply, demand and business confidence. 'Multinational corporations' (a fairly new expression) were regarded, suspiciously, as agents of chaos.

To remember all this is to register how amazingly British expectations have shrunk in the intervening years. The 1980s, which were supposed to resuscitate national pride and self-confidence, have instead left behind a sense of collapsed public standards and fallen idols. Faith in the monarchy, in the police, in the law and unwritten constitution, in the probity of civil servants and the value of public service - the erosion of belief here needs no describing. The sort of personal self-confidence associated with the 'go for it' decade never implied belief in anything except money, and now most of the money has blown away in the cold wind. The worth of the British State, in short, is no longer a matter for faith, but for cold assessment; and, by those standards, its performance is seen to be failing fast.

Then comes the decay of organisation. Any employee over the age of 40 knows that workers are no longer 'joiners'. One reason, certainly, is the job insecurity and sheer innocence of a workforce increasingly made up of low-paid part-timers, usually female. But the climate itself has changed. Younger people in factories or offices have never seen a strong trade union in action; they have not the faintest idea of what solidarity can achieve, and assume that it is a law of nature that employers get their way. And where are those grand old busybodies who knew how to run a meeting and who seemed to keep civil society itself alive? English people, especially, have lost much of their urge to set the world straight: an urge which had imperial echoes, but which also created huge popular campaigns, from the Congo Reform League to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Outsiders found that optimistic energy - that belief that private people could freeze hell over if they stood together and tried hard enough - very 'English'. Now those decent people, older but mostly still around, organise their neighbours to give blankets and food for Somalia and Bosnia. They hope only to relieve the consequences of evil, no longer to smash the evil itself.

Worst of all, politics itself is discredited. Few British voters now believe that a party or government can end a recession, overcome a housing shortage or create cities without beggars. And if politicians cannot change such things, then why should we pay attention to them or panic over their wrongdoings? Politicians - those who still try to persuade us that we can change our lives by changing our votes - are therefore not just superfluous, but dishonest: sellers of a false prospectus.

Fifteen years in power corrupt a party. Everybody can see that now, when they look at this government, and everybody should have expected it. But the seaminess of the Major government is made far worse by the thick, sleek varnish of arrogance laid over it, and that is the result of public indifference. Lying over arms to Iraq, swindling the homeless to buy votes, observing one standard of sexual morality for themselves but quite another for the rest of us . . . they thought that all these practices would be shrugged off by a public that no longer believed in politics anyway.

To say that Thatcherism, greed and the lust for power led to this cesspit is only half the story. The politicians found their own way to the pit. But we, the apathetic public, made no move to stop them. We had better start believing in something again - even if it is only that cesspits have to be emptied.