I like the sentiment behind Lexington’s discussion of the differences between the British, French and American attitudes to political and economic problems: while the French rant, and the Americans rave, the plucky Britishers keep calm and carry on.
This is one of the few things we all still like to pat ourselves on the back for; our own national myth, forged in the Blitz of course. I wonder how true it is though; I can’t imagine a Tea Party taking off in Britain, but I wouldn’t rule out violent strikes just yet: we’ve had them plenty of times in the past. The British capacity for muddle and fudge can be depressing for anyone with romantic ideas about making radical changes to society, but in times of crisis I suppose we should be glad we don’t have much of either a hard left (like France) or a hard right (like the US).
The French national myth – spirit of ’68 and all that – seems perversely undemocratic to me. Their idea is that if ‘the people’ take to the streets, the government will be forced to change its mind. This week, millions have done so – but aren’t they just another noisy, powerful set of vested interests? How do we know what the real will of ‘the people’ is? A million people might march, but another million might sit at home disagreeing with them, not making their views known through the distorting lens of the media: we simply don’t know. Millions more voted for Sarkozy’s agenda of reform (even if he’s made a predictable mess of it) than are now marching against it.
For this reason I’d rather trust opinion polls than head counts of demonstrators. Better still, I’d settle more matters by direct democracy – votes for mayors, referenda, perhaps some elected public officials – forcing us all to engage in politics more often and more deeply than a tick in a box once every five years. That seems the fairest way of letting the people speak. Why not put the question of the retirement age to a vote: if the French want to work a bit longer and arrest their relative economic decline, let them. If they’d rather not, that’s their choice. Other, harder working countries will simply take their place: France can always rely on plenty of wealthy foreign tourists, at least when the banlieues aren’t on fire.
As for the cuts in Britain: all I’ll add is that the scaremongering is quite out of proportion to the reality (and it’s surely for the best, for the long term, that welfare has suffered relative to education and capital spending). The Guardian have as ever done their best on this count, but the winner so far has to be this blog in the New Statesman, which seems to suggest that because public spending will now return to the level it was at before Gordon Brown became prime minister, many more people are now trying to kill themselves.