A seminal text about Britain in the late 20th century is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, says Max Hastings in The Times. In this “hymn of love” for his adopted nation, the American-born travel writer “rapturously celebrated crumpets, beans on toast, village fêtes, country lanes, people who say ‘mustn’t grumble’ and the chocolate digestive biscuit”. All still exist, of course. But three decades on, it’s hard to escape the rather gloomier conclusion that Britain is a nation in decline. Productivity has flatlined since 2008; growth “languishes compared with that of our spurned EU neighbours”. Yet no one is willing to admit it. They seem “determined to view our country as so special, so different, that we can ignore constraints that apply to everybody else”.
This week the Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, had to apologise for making the “obviously true” statement that British people don’t want to accept that “we’re all worse off”. Similarly, politicians daren’t spell out other important but unpopular truths: that our governance is held hostage by “selfish old voters”; that the NHS needs radical change; that we cannot have “European standards of social services and American levels of taxation”. A wise friend says he doesn’t despair, given how other countries are faring – just look at France’s self-defeating resistance to a higher pension age. But our leaders really must start focusing on the young, “and how this country can become affordable for them”. If they don’t, Bryson’s Britain will become a distant memory.