Our reaction to recent sporting victories reflects a deeper truth, we have a mature democracy and have be able to smile despite our travails, writes Allan Massie
The sun is shining as if we have a real summer at last, Andy Murray has won Wimbledon and has shown the world that he is not only a remarkable tennis player but also a very likeable and intelligent young man with a delightful sense of self-deprecating humour; the Lions – at last – played 25 minutes of exhilarating rugby, and there is an Ashes series just about to begin. It couldn’t be better. We should all take time to smell the flowers and reflect that there have been many worse times to be alive.
This doubtless sounds complacent to some. Many live in avoidable poverty; many more are insecure in employment. We are still faced with doom-laden warnings about continuing hardship. The economy itself may be beginning to turn the corner, but it’s still a long one before there is any likelihood that we will again be back on the smooth, straight road to prosperity. And if we look beyond this “sceptred isle” , we see horrors everywhere, notably in Syria and Egypt, where things look like getting worse before there is any chance they will get better.
Nevertheless we should count our blessings. We have survived the deepest and most prolonged recession since the 1930s without social and political disruption. Compared with the 1930s, living is easy, and whereas the Depression then brought Hitler to power in Germany and so led to the most terrible of wars, there is nothing comparable even in the worst-hit countries of the eurozone. Somehow we seem to be muddling through.
Here in Scotland we are engaged in the most important political argument for centuries, one that may have a momentous outcome: the break-up of the United Kingdom. And yet this argument is being conducted in a mature and civilised manner, with a remarkable absence of acrimony. Of course, there has been some ill-natured sniping, and accusations of scaremongering and intellectual dishonesty but, considering the issue, one can only admire the moderation of both sides in the debate and the absence of the sort of demonstrations that so often and so easily can lurch into violence. Nobody serious has called the integrity of the leaders of either camp into question. Nobody has been making rabble-rousing speeches. Nobody has employed inflammatory language. There appears to be a general agreement that we will all accept the result of the vote, even if it disappoints. This is evidence of a mature and decent democracy, and this too is something for which we ought to be thankful.
It may be, of course, that the calm tenor of the debate reflects a feeling that the outcome, either way, may not make a great difference to how we live, and that, if we should opt for independence, the social union of which Alex Salmond has spoken will survive unimpaired, and might indeed, as he has suggested, be strengthened. Some will doubtless think this evidence of an unjustified, and unjustifiable, complacency. Such a response may well be wrong.
Politicians may not be held in high esteem, and this too is not a bad thing. Instead we may say that the country which looks for a politician as saviour is in a much worse condition than one which doesn’t expect too much from any of its party leaders. Some of those who write letters to this newspaper disparagingly describe Mr Salmond as our “Dear Leader”, but the term is silly. Whether you approve or disapprove of him, agree or disagree with him, he is certainly not a duce, fuhrer or caudillo figure. Nobody, I suspect, even in his own party, would claim that “the leader is always right”. We would laugh at the suggestion. I suspect he would laugh himself.
The truth is surely that the leaders of all the major UK parties are decent men, who are usually in a fair measure of agreement. They recognise that the limits of what a politician can achieve are soon reached – even if they may not say so in public. I doubt if any believes that politicians are capable of controlling the economy. Instead they recognise that the most they can do is give it a nudge. This too is something for which we should be grateful.
More than half a century ago the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan,said that most of our people “had never had it so good”. He added, characteristically, that some of us feared it might be too good to last. This qualification was forgotten and the first claim was criticised. Nevertheless Macmillan was right; in 1959 the mass of the British people had indeed never had it so good. Despite everything, despite periods of economic gloom and hardship, despite today’s level of unemployment, despite the hardships inflicted by the freezing of wages, we may say again that many today have never had it so good and most still have it pretty well.
There are always contradictions. We have lived through three decades in which we have been told that “the market rules”. And yet the scope of the state – the welfare and caring state – has been extended in this time. Despite everything, the NHS still works effectively and treats more patients than ever before; people survive illnesses and conditions that used to be almost always fatal. Despite cuts in welfare spending, the budget for welfare is of a level that would have astonished all previous generations. Despite everything, including for instance unprecedentedly high levels of immigration, social peace reigns. War, alas, has not been outlawed but war in Europe has become unthinkable. This is a blessing that few people enjoyed in the past.
Next year we will commemorate 1914-18 war. We should look at the long list of names on the war memorials in cities, towns and villages across the country; and we should think ourselves fortunate to be living now, and not 100 years ago.
For most of us life is good and for many it is getting better. Society is gentler and more tolerant; women are no longer treated as second-class citizens. Children no longer hold out their hands for the tawse. It’s natural to moan or to dwell on whatever disappoints us, but the sun is shining, Murray has won Wimbledon, and we should smile. For a few days anyway.