Janan Ganesh

Miserabilism risks causing Britain serious harm

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, speaks at the party's annual conference in Manchester, northern England, on Sept 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, speaks at the party's annual conference in Manchester, northern England, on Sept 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, sang Pink Floyd in 1973. Stoicism was a national trait back then and Britain, the sick man of Europe, needed it.

There is no longer anything quiet about this country's negativity. The ambient noise in Britain today is a drone of complaint: about migration, unspecified "elites", politics itself.

The electoral sensation of the moment, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), feeds on a popular view that things are bad and getting worse. Mr Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, is running against the modern economy. Even Mr David Cameron, a prime minister of sunny temperament, indulges the sour mood.

This indulgence is so hard to forgive because the sourness is so misplaced. Look at Britain as an informed foreigner might. Here is a country that responds to a secessionist threat to its existence by holding a free and fair referendum. It has evolved an economic model that is more hospitable to business than in much of Europe, and kindlier to the poor than America.

It cuts public spending year on year without any civil disorder to speak of. Crime is falling. Unemployment is at 6 per cent. The politicians are small-time but basically honourable. The capital city is a miracle of the modern world.

We are eerily stable even when compared to other rich countries.

There is a non-trivial chance that France will elect a National Front president in 2017. In Britain, the wildest result of next year's general election would be a few parliamentary seats for UKIP, whose provincial cantankerousness stops some way short of extremism.

Migrants come, yes, and for a reason. This is a place worth coming to. The most effective policy against immigration is to make your country unattractive, and Britain spent much of the post- war period experimenting with it.

We are not just better than we think we are, we are better than we were. In 1973 we could hardly govern ourselves, much less look France and Germany in the eye as economic equals. That was, by the way, when Britain really was run by elites: the troika of big business, organised labour and government whose shambling corporatism eventually forced the world's first industrial nation to send for the International Monetary Fund.

The country is now richer, freer, more roundly envied.

Yet all talk is of decline. Britain is a successful nation that does not know it - an enclave of stability and progress that mopes around like a banana republic down on its luck.

Britain's great enrichment over recent decades has coincided with its membership of the European project, which it joined in the same year that Pink Floyd sang of our desperation. This suggests that Europe has either served us well or - on the harshest analysis possible - not held us back in any really decisive way.

Britain cannot allow the terms of political trade to be set by the miserabilists, and not just because they are wrong. They also have the capacity to do grievous harm.

The real threat to this country is nothing these people complain of - Europe, migrants, markets, London's encapsulation of all these things - but a political overreaction to the complaints themselves. It is easy to imagine the next government doing something seriously stupid in a futile effort to meet the national mood.

Mr Miliband talks not just of tax rises but of unpicking the liberal economic model with the kind of price interventions that worked so marvellously in the 1970s.

As for Mr Cameron, he appears to be two-thirds of the way to engineering a withdrawal from the European Union (EU) that he has at no point actually desired.

The pattern is this: malcontents hound him, he takes a step towards the exit, they cheer for a while, they hound him for more, he takes another step. The process works with the metronomic predictability of one of those executive desk toys.

He now wants the EU to check the right of free movement. In an announcement that Downing Street is still drafting, he may even make it a condition of his support for membership. He boxed himself into a sequence of events long ago, and it is clear where it ends.

A prime minister should by all means recommend EU exit if that is his cold analysis of where the British interest lies. He should not do so to calm an atmosphere of unappeasable vexation.

Noting her country's harshness on itself, Ms Jeane Kirkpatrick, the majestically wry US diplomat, said: "Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is."

So do Britons. They live in a rich country of rare dynamism and maturity, which has improved over their lifetimes. They are cranky because they take this as given. In fact, it is the accumulation of wise decisions over a long period. And it can be undone in a few hot-headed years.