Wednesday, 10 February 2010

At a time of economic, social and political crises, look to the past

The erudite and very idiosyncratic theological blog Cranmer picks up on the uncharacteristic rudeness displayed by Stephen Fry towards Anne Widdecombe in the latter’s examination of Mosaic law broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday. A more civilized debate took place on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves last night when the Conservative MP David ‘two brains’ Willetts discussed his new book Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children’s Future – and Why They should Give it Back (Atlantic) with, among others, the feminist author Bea Campbell. Willetts’ contention (in a very simplified form) is that the ‘baby boomers’, those westerners born between the years 1945 and 1965, have prospered, as no other generation in history has, at the expense of their children, and that the political and cultural permissiveness of the 1968 generation found economic expression among the same generation in the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s . The idea that there is considerable political continuity between the generation of 1968 and 1979 is one that is explored by Francis Beckett in a forthcoming edition of History Today.

The theme was negotiated tentatively in Night Waves to no real conclusion and even less agreement. Willetts was vague about future political strategies that might make life a little easier for future generations (probably because he wants you to buy his book and, let’s be honest, because he was implicated in the economic excesses which were fostered from the 1980s). Campbell dismissed Willetts' arguments, stating bluntly that Britain should become like Denmark, a highly taxed, highly regulated society. Now, this obsession with Scandinavia is something of an idée fixe at the moment in British political circles. It began on the left – rare is the week when The Guardian doesn’t carry at least one article admiring of Scandinavian ways, whether its Finland’s superlative musical education system, Denmark’s adoption of green transport systems, or eulogizing the Nordic diet (Herrings, loganberries, rye bread!). Now the Conservative shadow education minister Michael Gove has gone all Nordic with his scheme to introduce Swedish style independent schooling. All very well, and there is no doubt much to admire about the societies of our northern neighbours. But, as Charles Moore warns in yesterday’s Telegraph, how much can Britain – a hugely diverse, densely populated, highly mobile and cantankerous country – adopt of even the attractive bits of small, sparsely populated, culturally homogenous and consensual countries such as those of Scandinavia. The whole obsession is reminiscent of an episode recounted in Norman Stone’s forthcoming volume, The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War (Penguin), in which according to Stone, Prime Minister Edward Heath pushed for British membership of the European Common Market (as it then was) for little more reason than western Europe seemed to be a nicer, better run place than contemporary Britain. It may be that solutions to Britain’s current economic, political and social crises – acknowledged by a majority of the population according to a recent poll in The Times – may also be found in another country pundits are a little less eager to admire, Britain’s past. It’s worth a look.

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