02 Sep, 2009

Broken Britain? Don’t judge yet

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

We might think we’re living in catastrophic times, but things are no better – or worse – than they ever were

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – perhaps the wisest words Charles Dickens ever wrote. They are also words we ignore when we rush to judge on the state of the country’s affairs.

It has taken just a decade for Cool Britannia to become Broken Britain. What’s next on the agenda of national myth?

I admit I find it hard to resist the urge to pronounce on the world. O tempora! O mores! is the oldest journalistic cliche. I’ve written my fair share of strident summaries of the state of the arts, and the wider culture and society they tell us about. But I’ll be more careful in future, because no time is ever one of complete unity. No culture is monolithic. There is always complexity, and the one thing you can be sure of is that contemporary assumptions of a period will be partial, biased and inaccurate.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance, people believed they were living in an age of decline and even that the end of the world was imminent. Similarly, in the first decade of the 21st century, we believe we are living in a catastrophic time, a time of crisis – but if you compare life for the majority of people in the developed world with any other place or time, this looks like colossal self-pity.

Now it’s Britain that seems in the spotlight of moral anxiety. Our institutions, from parliament to hospitals, are believed by many to be failing. A country that was recently full of self-congratulation now has to face the fact that its economy may not after all be streets ahead of European neighbours like Germany and France.

But life is complicated. Generalisations are facile. Things have never been worse. Or better.

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