Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Declinism and Newsnight

Newsnight had a 30th birthday celebration programme on Saturday night, which I watched yesterday on the iPlayer. It took the form of a review of archive clips followed by discussions. In the light of my latest posts on the splendid state of the world, I was interested to hear what the guests on the discussion of world affairs had to say about developments over the last thirty years. An upbeat story of progress or a sad tale of decline? The guests on this particular panel were Lords Patten and Kinnock and the novelists AS Byatt and Martin Amis. Can you guess?

Firstly, Paxman (chairing) seemed intent on pushing a line that the Cold War world was one where we knew where we sat and so felt safer - the 'security of paralysis', I think Amis called it. Assuming he wasn't playing devil's advocate, which I think it reasonable to do, isn't this view almost pathologically wrong?

Nuclear war with the Soviet Union would have had far more catastrophic consequences than anything we face today. And we were keenly aware of the danger at the time. Even at thirteen (as I was in 1980), I remember being periodically terrified of nuclear war, the threat of which seemed quite immediate what with the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Paxman was also pushing the line that Britain's place in the world was 'much diminished'. Another bizarre hypothesis. In 1980, Britain was known as the 'sick man of Europe' and had recently been rescued by the IMF. The country was quite commonly regarded as ungovernable. As Paxo would say: come off it! At the very least, we've come full-circle...

Three of his guests - Lord Kinnock, AS Byatt and Martin Amis - were, on the whole, all too eager to jump on his declinist bandwagon (the fourth, Lord Patten had a more reasoned view of recent history).

One failing Lord Kinnock perceived was that we in Britain had passed up a massive opportunity to align ourselves with the forces of progress in the former Soviet Union; he put our failure down to an inability to make our minds up about Europe. Everything in this view strikes me as wrong.

It overestimates our influence over Russia, under-appreciates the efforts that were made to help at the time, and fails to recognise the truly incredible achievements that have been made: for instance, who could have predicted in 1980 - or even dared to hope - that the Baltic States and most of East-Central Europe would not only be in the EU but in NATO by now? And, if anything, Britain was the most enthusiastic supporter of the EU's expansion eastwards, being fully engaged in this project.

He presumably meant we hadn't managed to produce a liberal Russia. Well, that's quite a sizable world-historical goal he set us there. And it's one that's quite beyond the influence of anyone except the Russian people themselves and perhaps even them for quite a while.

He went on to say that we don't believe enough in what's good about ourselves, that we don't give people the opportunity to embrace what we stand for. I'm not sure what more we could do. I interpret the military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo as quite forceful impositions of such an opportunity.

Martin Amis, however, was the most insistent proponent of declinism. He believed we were still dealing with our radical demotion after the Second World War, when we went from being the 'hegemon' (we weren't) to being 'a second or even third rate power'. He purported to believe that this explains almost everything that happens in Britain politically or socially.

Lord Patten rebutted this view by pointing out that post-WW2 decline happened to everyone except the Americans. But setting the rest of the world aside, does anyone (certainly under the age of sixty) still feel disoriented because we lost the Empire (except, presumably, for Martin Amis)? I would venture to answer 'no'.

And we're a 'third-rate power' (whatever that means)? I can't be bothered to spell it out but think of the interventions mentioned above plus nuclear weapons, the seat on the UN Security Council, the English language, being the sixth biggest economy in the world, the fifth biggest military power, the originator of the world's most popular sports, second most popular music, etc. etc. Not that this is a particularly important debating point to the vast majority of the British, I would say - a clinching rebuttal of his thesis in itself.

'Europe' was spectrally ever-present at this feast of depressive delusion. The most unintentionally humorous comment came from AS Byatt who expressed her disappointment in the European project. Apparently she'd believed that the European Union would see all the 'best' aspects of European countries coming together in triumph, that is the 'civilised, quiet, non-self-glorifying, non-aggressive' bits. But that doesn't happen, she bemoaned. Rather the uncivilised, noisy, self-glorifying, aggressive stuff still continues and is all too evident. It makes her worry about democracy.

So the EU hasn't managed to reform human nature? Who'd have thought? And as for democracy, I'd say quite a lot of these fairly negative attributes are intrinsic to its rough and tumble (never mind the European Union itself being largely non-democratic).

The overall tenor was one of regret - albeit mostly unfocused and unreasoned. The general message was straightforwardly summarised by the otherwise mostly sensible Patten: apparently we 'can't get people to be like us'. Again, I'm at something of a loss to see why we would worry too much about this. And anyway, I'm not sure how you can support this belief. Have any of these people been down the Uxbridge Road, Cricklewood Broadway or the Kingsland Road in recent years and looked around them? They will find a remarkable number of people from all over the world who have made the biggest commitment possible 'to be like us'.


Brit said...

I do have a suspicion that a feeling of regret and decline is intrinsic to English middle-aged males, regardless of what is actually happening in the world.

Once again, the timescale of the narrative makes all the difference. Of course Britain's place in the world is much diminished compared to the height of the Empire... but 'decline' can't possibly describe the period since 1980.

Remember the rival bids for the 2012 Olympics? The London video was full of thrusting, beautiful, multi-ethnic youngsters, ie. a positive representation of the post-colonial world. The Paris one had shots of croissant-munching and the frigging Eiffel Tower. The Empire lingers, but Britain should be proud of its refusal to become a museum.

Sean said...

As Andrew Roberts put it, we lost an empire in order to beat Fascism and it was well worth it.

The question is why do we feel we have to be part of another empire? The drumbeat of decline is banged the hardest by those who seem to want to join up one way or another.
The Eu, the 51st state, the UN transie world state ect.

Free people tend to do the same things as other free people, if 9/11 had happened in Franfurt it would still be an attack on me and on the UK. We don't need any sort of legal identity or legal framework to understand that or respond to that.

I am not sure the French or Germans would see it the same way the other way around as with the US on 9/11, as proved they express regret, and help as little as they can get away with (see Afghanistan) and keep their heads down. Now that looks to me like "decline"

As I explained yesterday we are long on technology and short on resources this to me is a very dangerous position to be, and i would say its just as dangerous as the cold war. It allows the mad and bad to catch up quickly.

And just like the cold war you can easily lose it.
How democracies perish

malty said...

There can be little doubt that compared with 1980 Britain is a more rounded nation, comfortable in its skin despite it's more frantic pace and higher, often unattainable, expectations, one up for Maggie, a continuing Labour administration would have led to a horse of an entirely different hue.
All of this despite the destruction of manufacturing and an unhealthy reliance upon the service sector, the ongoing drugs problem and the creation of a sink estate underclass, AA Gill, John Gray, squawk Wark and the Guardian with it's collection of wobbly liberals. Overall much improved but can do better.
Paxman is from the planet Zog, lives in his own wormhole, the combination of him and the other half of Britain's biggest freeloading team, the Kinnocks, gasbags extraordinaire, had us reaching for the remote.
As one who was around at the time of the cold war, even though as a young person at the kick off, man it weren't funny, at all. We lived through a period of constant threat, nuclear Armageddon. When Dr Strangelove hit the cinema's neither I or any of my friends found it remotely amusing, it wasn't because it was too close to the true, it was the frigging truth.

Gaw said...

Brit: From where I sit I struggle to recognise the country they describe. It's not just that they seem wrong - their arguments seem simply redundant.

Sean: Er, you don't appear to have noticed that McGurn, writing in 1984 - like Toqueville writing over a hundred years earlier - was wrong about democracies in this respect as the following decade was to demonstrate. In fact, the two of them were 180 degrees wrong. As ever, you have an unreasonable lack of confidence.

Malty: Beautiful! I would have loved to have seen you on that panel. It would have been a televisual landmark of some sort!

Anonymous said...

I do have a suspicion that a feeling of regret and decline is intrinsic to English middle-aged males,....The London video was full of thrusting, beautiful, multi-ethnic youngsters

As a loyal, middle-aged colonial male drowning in regret and nostalgia, I often dream of the resurgence of the Empire and the return of the glorious days of Kipling & co. But the thought that, if such were ever to occur, it would be brought about by mobs of thrusting youngsters of any ethnicity makes me think I might be better off just sticking with the Yanks.

Hey Skipper said...

Even at thirteen (as I was in 1980), I remember being periodically terrified of nuclear war ...

I was 25 at the time, and equally terrified.