In 1963, exactly sixty years ago, Arthur Koestler edited and contributed to a book of essays under the title “Suicide of Nation” , a rather gloomy but accurate description of what they all saw as the slough of despond into which Britain had then fallen. From great power to nowhere in less than twenty years, with our heads ostrich like in the sand. A year earlier in 1962 Dean Acheson’s observation that “Great Britain Has Lost an Empire But Not Yet Found a Role” was a firm nudge from a transatlantic friend that all was not well in the Kingdom.
Harold Wilson was in campaign mode once he took over Labour from Hugh Gaitskell following the latter’s premature death also in 1963 and put planning at the centre of his “mission” – the “white heat” of the technological revolution was to be harnessed. It wasn’t. Acheson had told us to look to participate in the adventure of European unity well underway and Wilson was to agree, though less than enthusiastically, as was the new Conservative leader Edward Heath.
If a modern day Koestler was to commission a book reviewing where we are in 2023 he could borrow the title from the 1963 volume, and some. From Wilson onwards there has never been a “plan”, cunning or otherwise, that worked and whilst we did take Acheson’s advice our suicidal tendencies forced us to abandon being politically, economically and emotionally part of Europe following the disastrous 2016 referendum.Today both major parties are in “Don’t mention the War” mode but unlike Basil Fawlty it’s Europe not the War that mustn’t be mentioned. And the ostriches are everywhere.
The thing we struggle with still, all these years later, is recognising the reality of where we are. A medium sized modern European state with a crumbling infrastructure and startling social and regional divisions. The only force for unity was the late Queen and with her passing we are struggling even more. We seem obsessed with trivial issues, slogans and delusion, and lack of leadership. Keir Starmer’s “Five missions for a better Britain” are more of the same, little more than a shallow wish list.
When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a politician, he replied: “Events, dear boy, events. As civil servants Sir John Bevan recently put it “Events Happen. When they do a lot of things are at stake: lives, livelihoods, reputation. So knowing how to respond is a key survival skill for leaders and organisations of all kinds” Sir John reminded us of President Kennedy’s view “Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement”.
We have had some spectacular failures of judgement recently. Brexit, of course, and the fantasy that it can be made to “work” is more of the same. The brief Liz Truss Premiership was breathtakingly inept. That Boris Johnson got anywhere near Number 10, or that Jeremy Corbyn was ever Leader of the Labour Party, was more of the same.
In seeking solutions my instinct is here to blow up what we have and start again. That’s what Germany did from 1945 because they had to. Our victory was pyrrhic , arguably we won the war but lost the peace – the Germans the reverse. Our infrastructure crumbles through a failure of planning and investment and, in part, through Thatcher’s obsession with privatisation. Look at our water supply for a venal example. These private sector monopolies pollute our rivers and seas whilst paying their chief executives seven figure salaries rather than putting their customers first.
The idea of an “accidental suicide” is a bit tautological, suicide is usually a deliberate act. That said the acts that have led to the modern day “Suicide of a Nation” were, in the main, deliberate and were cataclysmic failures of judgment. They cannot be reversed by putting out more flags or by pious calls for more ‘“growth”. Sure a growing economy is better than a stagnant or declining one. But if you rule out reentering Europe by rejoining the Single Market you shoot yourself in both feet.
Arthur Koestler wrote: “If one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted by some built-in mental disorder which drives him towards self-destruction.” This is gloomy and pessimistic but when we look at post war Britain (my lifetime exactly !) there is more than a kernel of truth in it. Particularly after the “events” of the last ten years.