When Tony Blair celebrated a ‘new dawn’, in the early hours of 7 May 1997, the Southbank Centre rang with the sound of the song that had become his anthem. D:Ream’s Things can only get better had been played in halls, meetings and rallies across the country as the man who was to become the youngest Prime Minister since 1812 ended his party’s long march back to power. There was a new broom at Downing Street, a new style of ‘sofa government’, a new tone, reflected in parties with pop stars and fashion designers, and a new mood across the nation.
For a while, it did look like ‘Cool Britannia’. There was a buzz, a genuine global buzz, about this new regime, led by a sparky charmer who once wanted to be a rock star; a charmer who wooed world leaders as well as British voters. And for a while, things did get better. There were new schools, new hospitals, big cuts to NHS waiting lists, a minimum wage, even a peace deal in Northern Ireland. And then there was an unwise war, and there was a global economic crisis, and then there was a change of government and then there was a referendum. And 37 per cent of the population (52 per cent of the people who voted) voted to leave the EU.
One of the reasons they voted to leave was because they were worried about immigration. Most of the people who voted to leave lived in areas where there wasn’t much immigration. In London, for example, where a third of people are born abroad, 60 per cent of us voted to stay. But the country has voted to leave, and we will leave. Whether we like it or not, we will leave, but we will leave a political alliance, not Europe and not the world.
In the next few years, there are difficult decisions to make, decisions about trade, and tariffs and rights and laws. These decisions will take up an awful lot of energy and time, but there are bigger decisions we also need to make about the kind of country we want to be.
Some of the people who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU sounded as if they wanted to turn back the clock. They seemed to want to live in Britain, and in particular England, as they thought it was in the 1950s, a country of cricket matches on village greens, pots of tea at the vicarage and long walks in gentle drizzle. A country, in fact, where you hardly ever saw a face that wasn’t white. My mother came to that country, from Sweden, in 1953, and found it took a while to adjust to the greyness and the lack of central heating. Friends’ parents came to that country, from Jamaica and Grenada and Barbados. They faced signs that said ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’.
That country was at the start of a long process of rebuilding itself after a world war. It built a healthcare system that was, and remains, the envy of most of the world. It built the world’s biggest international financial centre and one of the world’s strongest
aerospace industries. It built a strong services sector, partly helped by EU migration, and has done better than almost any other European country at creating jobs. And it built the fifth biggest economy in the world, and a capital city where people from 270 countries rub along pretty damn well.
What it hasn’t been quite so good at is creating jobs in those parts of the country where industries have died. It hasn’t been so good at educating or training young people in less well off areas. It hasn’t been great at training its own nurses, doctors or construction workers, and seems to have found it a lot less trouble to rely on nurses, doctors and construction workers from abroad.
We have often talked about ourselves as a “great” nation, perhaps because we have the word “great” in our name. We did, it’s true, once have an empire, but we had it because we took over other people’s countries and thought we were better than them. Those days are gone. We don’t need to apologise when we bump into lamp posts, but it might be a good idea, and particularly when we’re negotiating with other countries, to strike a fresh tone. We need to think more boldly, and more clearly, about our strengths as a nation – and what these can bring to the world.
At our best we are, or have been, a tolerant nation, happy to accommodate other people’s views and customs as long as they respect ours. We don’t mind a bit of difference, because we’re pretty eccentric ourselves. We say we “mustn’t grumble” and we generally don’t. We like to have a laugh and don’t mind laughing at ourselves. We believe in decency. We believe in fair play. And we’re adaptable. We have to be adaptable because you never know when it’s going to rain.
It’s just as well we’re adaptable, because in the next 20 years, we will face much, much bigger challenges than leaving the EU. We face the rise of the robots. Economists think that about 35 per cent of British jobs will be lost to automation. That’s less than in the US, where the figure is likely to be 47 per cent, but it’s still an awful lot. We are going to need to be very adaptable to cope with this, and to cope with it well.
We will need to teach people how to get the new skills they will need to find new work. We will need to teach people how to be entrepreneurial as the “gig economy” becomes the norm. And we will need to find ways to make sure that British values – of fairness and decency – aren’t crushed by the values of Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs may think it’s fun to “disrupt”, but you can’t just leave the “disrupted” to rot.
As we face these challenges, we do have some enormous advantages. We have British spirit, which knows you can win a war, or rebuild a nation, through calm perseverance. And we have the creative nature that produced Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, P G Wodehouse, J K Rowling and Keats. Since Chaucer, since Beowulf, in fact, we have been producing great literature, poetry, theatre, music, dance and art. Whatever changes we face in the world, whatever trade deals we forge and however many robots steal our jobs, we will all still love and laugh and rejoice. We need art to remind us who we are. We need art to remind us that we are not alone. We need art to remind us to be brave when it all feels too much.
Our creativity is our greatest strength, and our greatest export, an export worth any tariff that anyone wants to slap on it. So, let’s certainly teach our children STEM subjects, but let’s not forget the arts, or neglect to nurture the creativity and sense of humour that have made us the fine, quirky, independent-spirited nation we are.
We don’t yet know, we can’t yet know, if this will be the start of a new dawn, but what we do know is that it sure as hell won’t be a dusk.