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'.