First, an apology to the Mail on Sunday right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens, never my political buddy but someone who takes his thoughts and words very seriously. In a book review, I described Hitchens as an English nationalist who longed for back then when "Englanders were pink, before immigrants sailed in and spoilt it all." That, said Hitchens, was a gross misrepresentation of what he believed. He is concerned not about England but Britain, the collective, and what he seeks is a binding "monoculture" for all who live here. He undeniably takes a pretty grim view of the state we're in.
Millions of others are pondering the future of our nation, debating, arguing, opining, questioning, sometimes getting abusive and over-excited. That is the priceless effect of an election: it leavens the most indifferent or bovine citizens (even the ones who can never effing be bovvered) to raise their thinking beyond the next beer or credit card payment.
The live leaders' debates have added heat and drama to what is turning out to be a decisive contest that will (hopefully) reshape parliament and define the story of Britain. Are we a dead loss, careless and hopeless, or, with all our faults, still a spry, effective, inventive, conscientious people? Ask that question and a rift valley opens up between gloomy, woebegone naysayers gathering on one side, and, on the other, some peppy upbeats, mostly those who still feel the heartbeat of optimism. Policies and politics depend on which narrative convinces voters.
We have a choice. I am always wary of blank-cheque jingoism – like Gordon Brown's Great Britain mantras – and am daily chastised for being critical and negative about my adopted land. The list of our social ills, political corruption and systems failures is long. The whole column could be filled up with those, starting with teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, hooliganism, workless lives, inequality, poor education, violence, and on and on and on. But yet, I find myself revolting against David Cameron's "Broken Britain", an indefensible slander, a calumny. We are not busted and have what it takes to rise to any number of challenges. Call it reactive patriotism if you like, the defence of the realm in its time of greatest need. It could be that one reason why the Tories are not running away with the election is that they make us feel bad about ourselves and snatch away the nation's self-respect. We may also be wary of politicians who talk up disasters and threats. That is one way they can take undue control over individual lives.
Phillip Blond, a perceptive though paranoid thinker, sees only wreckage and chaos when he surveys the landscape. In his recent tome, apparently Cameron's bible, he bears witness to what he terms the "wholesale collapse" of the country. There is "increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family breakdown, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork...". Surely not excessive paperwork! And it goes on for a further hundred or so words, a depressive litany to make Pollyanna jump off the cliffs of Dover.
Sir Richard Attenborough, Terence Conran and others certainly don't believe Britain is kaput. In a published letter they say: "Investor confidence, tourism and our own self-esteem can be destroyed by painting a distorted picture." Boris Johnson too is a dissenter. Not for the first time I seek the views of oldie relatives for whom there is no place like this home. Some were swayed by the Tories but now, like other migrants made good, they are seriously offended by the crashing assessment.
Uncle Hassan, a simple man with a small corner shop and big bank account, spoke for many at a gathering recently: "Rubbish, what rubbish they are talking. This country is the best for hard-working people. OK, lazy ones are there, but have you seen how much people are now working: wives, husbands, everyone, day and night? When we first came they were much more idle. Also look how they help Haiti, and the way they take care of disabled people. You think they do that in our countries?"
The last few months have been hard for my family. My English brother-in-law, devoted to my sister, who is mentally ill, is dying of cancer. They live in the valleys in Wales. Although nothing can hold back the inevitable, or mitigate the grief, he has been cared for well by health professionals and his friends and neighbours have rallied to help.
Our teenage daughter has, inexplicably, started to faint many times a week. Again our fantastic GP and Charing Cross Hospital have spun into action and are testing for all possibilities. (My best mate, an American doctor, cannot believe we are getting all this for free and does the sums each time we talk). Her teenage friends make sure she is never alone. Friends of friends have phoned me to offer support and help. What broken Britain?
It is The Economist that has delivered the most effective rebuttals to the lurid Blond/Cameron scenario. Britons should beware of getting into a "slough of despond" or falling back on nostalgia about the good old days. The latest crime figures show a significant reduction. Though stranger violence has gone up, child homicides have fallen by two-thirds since the 1970s, when Britain was near the top of the list for these murders, says Professor Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University.
Gun crimes are on the decrease, though are still unacceptably high in some sections of the population. We smoke less than any other European nation and domestic violence has gone down dramatically as society attitudes change. Even drinking isn't as bad as I thought; though binge-drinking is going up – a very bad thing – we are number 10 in the OECD for the amount of alcohol consumed by Britons over 15.
We still have to achieve the really good society. You don't do that by writing off the country. Sure it's creaky and grumpy and in parts dangerously unstable. It needs fixing. But Britain's Got Talent (I love that quirky show) and drive and guts and gumption and energy and kindness and faith in itself to handle the recession and whatever blows in our direction. Here's hoping we vote in a government which doesn't devalue this extraordinary social capital.
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