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The hundred-year myth of British decline

Baden-Powell surround by his “crusaders for national regeneration”. Getty

If you’ve been following the school concrete furore, or have “found yourself stuck for hours on a rail replacement bus”, you know the idea, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Times. “Britain is in deep decline.” Our infrastructure is “dirty, scruffy, antiquated, broken”. Our politicians are useless and our policemen are powerless. But this narrative could equally apply to Britain in the early 1900s, or the 1960s, or the mid 1990s. People have always written off the country as “condemned to shabbiness and failure”. In 1982, the American writer Paul Theroux travelled around the British coastline and was shocked that people were such “wet blankets” about the UK. During the 1950s and 60s, wages “grew at an unprecedented rate” – but the economist Michael Shanks spoke of a nation of “genteel poverty”.

This narrative of decline applied even in the “heyday of empire”. Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional, which marked Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, predicted that Britain’s imperial power would melt away. Sir Robert Baden-Powell was so disturbed about Britain’s patchy performance in the Boer War that he set up the scouts to turn youngsters into “crusaders for national regeneration”. In general, “declinism has been most pronounced at the end of long periods of Tory rule” – which has an “obvious and depressing implication” for Rishi Sunak’s election prospects. For the rest of us, it’s heartening. An “allegedly decadent, degenerate Britain” still managed to win two world wars. For a country that’s been “doomed” for more than a century, “we haven’t done too badly”.