In the novels of Thomas Hardy, small lapses have dire consequences. In Jude the Obscure it is the cerebral Jude Fawley’s ill-advised lust for the vacuous Arabella Donn that dooms his ambition to become a “Christminster” scholar. Gabriel Oak’s misfortunes in Far from the Madding Crowd begin with a novice sheepdog and end with an amoral sergeant. The plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge hinges on a moment of drunken bravado.
There is something very Hardy-esque about Britain today. Nearly seven years ago, a majority of voters — 51.9% of the 72.2% who voted — opted to take their country out of the European Union. A significant number of those who voted “Leave” now seem to feel the same way about Brexit as Jude felt about Arabella. It was a terrible mistake.
According to a YouGov poll conducted in early November, 56% of Britons now think that, in hindsight, Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU, compared with 32% who think it was right, and 12% who don’t know. A more recent poll revealed that 17% of those who voted to exit now regard it as a blunder.
When asked to explain their regret, one in four disillusioned Leavers said that things have generally become worse since Brexit. The second most common answer (given by one in five) referred to the deterioration of the economy and the rising cost of living.
True, the members of the political elite who backed Brexit make no such admissions of regret, even in private. The current lines of defense are either that Brexit simply hasn’t been executed properly or that it is too early to judge it a failure. My old friends who make these arguments remind me of the Trotskyists we knew at Oxford back in the 1980s, who said much the same things about Marxism. I suspect they are uncomfortably aware of this resemblance.
Yet there is a general agreement, even amongst Remainers, that the country’s troubles can’t all be blamed on Brexit. Leave aside the shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which have had adverse impacts nearly everywhere, or the global financial crisis of 2008-9. “The harder truth,” Tom McTague recently wrote in The Atlantic, “is that Britain has been failing for longer still.”
Since the turn of the century, in fact, Britain has been lamentably mismanaged. The serial failures encompass its military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, its regulatory regime in the great financial crisis, its political elite during Brexit, and its institutional machinery during the pandemic. Westminster devolved power to Scotland in the hope of neutering secessionism, only to see the reverse happen. It gave voters a referendum on leaving the EU without any idea of how it would do so if they voted yes. And when it found itself outmaneuvered during the Brexit negotiations, it signed up for the economic division of its own country, knowing that this would imperil the fragile political settlement in Northern Ireland.
To those of a certain age, the days when Tony Blair ruled Cool Britannia are now bathed in a rosy radiance. Lamentably Mismanaged Britannia doesn’t have quite the same ring. I recently introduced my younger sons to “Football’s Coming Home,” the semi-ironical anthem composed by the comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner at the time of the European international soccer tournament in 1996. Even a Scotsman can’t fail to be moved by the fact that those lines about “thirty years of hurt” will soon themselves be thirty years old. Sixty years of hurt is close to a lifetime.
The current competition amongst British journalists is to see who can paint the bleakest picture of life in 2020s Britain. Writing in the Financial Times, Tim Harford cited falling average real earnings, stagnating real household disposable income per capita and an historic plunge in the growth of labor productivity. Taxes are at their highest level (37% of national income) in forty years. The same goes for interest payments on the national debt. The incomes of those in the tenth percentile of the income distribution are lower in the UK than in Slovenia.
Harford’s colleague Martin Wolf sees low investment as the root of the UK’s problem. Data from the International Monetary Fund show that UK gross investment averaged 17.1% of GDP from 2010 to 2022, behind Italy (18.6%), Germany (21.1%) and France (23.3%). “The country is suffering something worse than rising regional inequality,” Wolf wrote in his most recent jeremiad on the subject: “national stagnation.” In the past, the dynamism of London compensated for the stagnation of the provinces. However, since the financial crisis, labor productivity growth in London has also slumped.
UK consumer price inflation has been above 10% in six out of the last seven months. More than five million people are on various forms of out-of-work benefits. Labor participation has not recovered from the pandemic. Hospital waiting lists are at record highs, as are delays at accident and emergency departments. The National Health Service is itself sick as the proverbial parrot.
Two weeks ago I wrote about “deaths of despair” in the United States. Life expectancy has also ceased to improve in Britain, as the Economist pointed out last week, and mortality rates have gone up in England and Wales for men in their thirties and forties. But American-style deaths of despair from drugs, suicides and alcohol are a Scottish peculiarity. In the rest of the UK they explain only about a sixth of the life-expectancy gap between the richest 20% and poorest 20% of neighborhoods. “Outside London,” the magazine concluded, “there is almost a perfect correlation between life expectancy in a local authority and its level of deprivation.”
Progressive Americans today obsess about race — the supposedly indelible division between White and Black — and gender — the apparently growing blur between male and female. There is something bewildering to the immigrant about these theories of White supremacy and gender fluidity. But things in England never really change, no matter how hard people try to follow American fashions. In England it’s always about class.
In politics, that means the Tories govern as long as the middle class fares well. But when enough middle-class families stare proletarianization in the face, it’s Labour’s turn once again. The Conservatives have been in power for approaching 13 years. They are almost certain to lose the next election. According to the Spectator’s ten-poll average, Labour is ahead by 19 percentage points, with 46% of voters intending to vote for them at the next general election, compared with 27% for the Tories. You need to go back to mid-1990s years to find a Labour lead that large. And yet it is difficult to believe that the present Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is the man to resurrect Cool Britannia. He has none of Blair’s flair.
I have written more than once about the growing resemblances between the 2020s and the 1970s. No country seems more intent than the UK on reenacting, with meticulous attention to detail, that decade of stagflation and malaise. The trade unions are rediscovering their ancestral love of striking. The trains are late. The potholes are unfilled. And there is a general belief throughout the country that the political class are interchangeable incompetents. If this were a BBC period drama about life in the Seventies, it would win multiple BAFTAs.
And yet for some strange reason I am drawn back to this supposedly benighted country — to the extent of moving my family back this coming academic year. This decision has invited predictable jokes about a misguided rat boarding rather than leaving a sinking ship. The view amongst at least some of my friends is that I have succumbed to the exile’s nostalgia and am in for a rude awakening. (And yes, I have re-read The Return of the Native.)
It’s not so much that the UK economy has improved somewhat since the debacle of Liz Truss’s 50-day premiership, though the Bank of England now forecasts a shallower recession than it did back in November, while currency and bond markets have recovered their composure since Rishi Sunak took over in Number 10 Downing Street. Next week’s budget seems likely to contain more good (or at least less bad) news.
The thing that draws me back is what draws so many people to the British Isles. I am going to call it the virtue of inertia — though that phrase understates how much British society has changed in my lifetime.
The paradox of the Brexit vote in 2016 is that it seemed at the time to be motivated by a desire to limit immigration. The phrase “take back control” was widely interpreted to refer to immigration policy, which membership of the European Union had to a significant extent delegated to Brussels by requiring free movement of all EU citizens across national borders. To many foreign commentators, this seemed to imply that support for Brexit was in some way racist — the product of xenophobic nostalgia for a time when the British population was overwhelmingly White and dealt with foreign peoples mainly by subjugating them.
This analysis was obviously nonsense at the time, but subsequent events have discredited it completely. Since 2016, immigration into the UK has surged. Around 1.1 million people immigrated to the UK in the year to June 2022, compared with 596,000 in 2016. Moreover, the share from the European Union has declined: Net migration from the EU is in fact negative. The past year’s figures have been inflated by the arrival of 170,000 refugees from war-torn Ukraine and 76,000 Hong Kong residents who prefer not to accept the former colony’s submission to rule from Beijing. The numbers of people seeking asylum have also increased. But the main driver of the rise in migration is an influx of people from outside Europe, most of whom are not White. The same is true of the 277,000 students who came to the UK from abroad last year. The EU share in that total has slumped.
If racism had been an underlying motive for voting Leave, such an unintended consequence would surely have triggered public outrage. But there has been none. A new report on “Immigration after Brexit” (published by the group UK in a Changing Europe) explains why. The goal of Vote Leave was not to restrict immigration but “to end free movement [from the EU] and to introduce a new system for work migration that does not discriminate by country of origin and that prioritizes skilled work. The system introduced in January 2021 does broadly that …” Moreover, that system is popular. To quote the report:
There has been a substantial and sustained shift towards more positive attitudes towards migration in general, and in particular for work-related migration. … there is a broad public consensus that any system should meet the needs of the economy and labour market, reward contribution, and be relatively generous towards genuine refugees.
Another report — from the Policy Institute at King’s College London — confirms this. Compared with their counterparts in 17 countries, people in the UK are the least likely to support strict limits or an outright ban on immigration. The proportion of Britons who think employers should prioritize native-born workers over immigrants has more than halved from 69% in 2009 to 30% in 2022 — in marked contrast to Italy and France, where the share has gone up.
This shift helps explain one of the most remarkable phenomena of my lifetime. The UK — and particularly the capital London — has been transformed ethnically. Yet the racial conflict foreseen by (amongst others) the renegade conservative Enoch Powell has largely failed to materialize. When I was seven years old, London was 86.2% White. Half a century of migration has reduced that share to 36.8%. You will look in vain for the race riots prophesied by Powell in his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968.
As data from Gallup show, the UK is not quite as popular a destination for would-be migrants around the world as it was ten years ago. But it is still more popular than Italy and most other EU countries. Moreover, thanks to the post-2016 policy changes, the UK has risen up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “talent attractiveness” league table. It now ranks eighth — ahead of Canada and the United States. As a magnet for highly educated workers, entrepreneurs and university students, Britain exerts far more pull than France. That’s one reason why London is now one of the world’s leading cities outside the United States for unicorns (startups now worth $1 billion). Only Beijing has more.
But how can a country that is supposedly mired in the doldrums continue to exert such attraction? This brings me to the virtue of inertia. British society has changed a great deal, and it will continue to do so as talent flows into Britain. But Britain’s institutions have the remarkable property of not changing — or changing only very slowly. And that is at the very heart of Britain’s international appeal.
The Times Higher Education Supplement’s World University Rankings include 1,799 universities across 104 countries and regions. Each university is ranked on 13 indicators that measure the quality of its “teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” In the most recent edition, Oxford comes in first, followed by Harvard and then, tied with Stanford in third place, Cambridge. The next five spots are taken by the usual US suspects, but in tenth place is Imperial College London. If you rank the world’s universities purely by research, Oxford is number 1, Cambridge number 2.
When you consider how much more money the top US universities receive from their endowments, government grants, donations and astronomical tuition fees, the performance of the top three British universities is truly astonishing.
No such international rankings exist for independent (i.e., private) high schools, but I would be willing to bet the British institutions would dominate them if they did. The top performers in terms of A-level results include the two St. Paul’s schools (for boys and girls, respectively), Westminster and Wycombe Abbey, but there are other and better ways of measuring educational attainment amongst teenagers, and these would propel Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester up the rankings, to name just four of the best boarding schools in England.
True, guilty as charged, independent schools educate only a minority of British kids — around 7%. True, the 1,300 independent schools that enjoy charitable status have reason to fear a Labour government, as the party has vowed to end that status and tax the private schools. But the imposition of value-added tax on school fees is unlikely to discourage the parents of the 56,000 overseas pupils enrolled at Independent Schools Council institutions. And the threat to the schools’ charitable status is not new. The Conservatives also made it in 2017 and the result was a 26% increase in the number of pupils receiving financial assistance, from 136,000 to 158,000.
To visit Oxford or Cambridge, or any of the great independent boarding schools, is to appreciate the virtue of inertia. Even left-leaning vice chancellors or headteachers can achieve only modest changes in the face of centuries-old traditions that are inscribed not only in historic buildings but in some cases also in the graffiti carved on the walls of the classrooms.
I used to lament how slowly British educational institutions changed. Indeed, it was one of my principal motives for moving from Oxford to the United States. But I now see that this inertia is a feature not a bug. It is the principal reason why the woke mind virus — which has infected so much of contemporary US education — has made much less headway in the UK.
It is de rigueur these days to lament the dominance of British politics by the products of a handful of elite institutions. In his book Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took over the UK, Simon Kuper has considerable fun at the expense of the architects — if that is the right term — of Brexit.
The Daily Telegraph has supplied more grist to that particular mill with its recent publication of selections from the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp chats, which provide an appalling-yet-fascinating insight into the inner workings of Boris Johnson’s government as it struggled to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. The mixture of cynicism, egomania and undergraduate humor is a heady one. To give a single example, Hancock once asked Michael Gove, a fellow minister, to explain the goals of a coming meeting on the pandemic.
“Letting people express concerns in a therapeutic environment before you and I decide the policy,” Gove replied.
“You are glorious,” shot back Hancock.
The educational homogeneity of the British political class is indeed remarkable. Six out of the last seven prime ministers attended Oxford, two attended Eton and one Winchester. Three of the last seven chancellors of the Exchequer attended Oxford and one Cambridge. St. Paul’s, Eton, and Charterhouse educated one chancellor apiece. Only two prime ministers and one chancellor attended a comprehensive (in American parlance, public) school.
But the idea that the Oxford alums only recently “took over” the country is absurd. Of the 57 prime ministers to date, 30 were educated at Oxford and 14 at Cambridge. Twenty prime ministers attended Eton, seven Harrow and six Westminster.
Even the seemingly pantomime politics of 2022 — the year of three prime ministers — was in fact a continuation of British political tradition. 1868 was also a year of three prime ministers. (The Earl of Derby resigned because of ill health in February and Disraeli served until December, when he lost a general election to Gladstone.) Just as last year’s political tumult was a consequence of a great political upheaval — Brexit — so the musical chairs of 1868 followed the passage of the electoral Reform Act of 1867.
Something similar had happened after the 1832 Reform Act. There were four prime ministers (Grey, Melbourne, Peel and Melbourne) in the period between July 1834 and April 1835. To go even further back, there were five prime ministers between Lord North’s resignation in 1782 — not long after the Battle of Yorktown — and William Pitt’s accession to power in December the following year. And I can think of six different occasions between 1762 and 1925 when Britain had three or four prime ministers in the space of three years.
I would hazard the hypothesis that this is one of the distinctive ways in which Britain has coped with major political crises over the past three centuries, avoiding the revolutionary discontinuities that have afflicted so many other polities (not least neighboring France) over the same period. A spike in the turnover of Oxonian premiers is surely preferable to barricades and tumbrils. And consider how swiftly, in the wake of last year’s convulsions, political stability has returned. In just a few short months, Rishi Sunak has done much to improve relations with the European Union, not least by resolving the anomalous situation the Johnson government created in Northern Ireland, while the resignation of the Scottish Nationalists’ leader Nicola Sturgeon has dealt a severe blow to their project of secession.
This is not a reactionary defense of the social and political status quo. As Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, pointed out to me last week, “When the King is crowned in May, a Hindu Prime Minister will attend the ceremony with his Indian wife and Buddhist Home Secretary. A Muslim Mayor of London will be there with the Chief Rabbi, who is staying at Buckingham Palace as a guest of the King so as not to travel on the Sabbath.” Beat that, woke America!
Go down the social scale and you encounter a similar combination of institutional inertia and social transformation. It’s impressive how much working-class life still revolves around football stadiums and the pubs in their vicinity. The Premier League is global, in terms of both its players and its TV audience, but when you ask what makes it appealing, it’s partly the rootedness of the clubs’ fan bases. I was keenly aware of this watching Arsenal beat Bournemouth by a hair’s breadth last Saturday. The songs the fans sing have not changed very much over 20 years. But the Arsenal crowd is now strikingly multi-colored. In a world being sent stark, raving mad by technological innovations, from Twitter to TikTok to ChatGPT, Britain’s institutional inertia has never looked more attractive.
Not all Hardy’s novels end unhappily. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury’s father steers his daughter away from the dependable Giles Winterborne and into the arms of the philanderer Edred Fitzpiers out of a misguided snobbery. However, after a succession of misadventures and miseries, Grace and Edred are reconciled. Britain today feels a little like Grace and her wayward husband. Brexit cannot be undone. But perhaps it can be forgiven. And maybe — just maybe — as the consequences of taking back control over immigration play out amid the country’s ancient edifices, it will turn out to have been for the best.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Niall Ferguson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the founder of Greenmantle, an advisory firm, he is author, most recently, of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.