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800 years after Magna Carta and 200 after Waterloo, the UK’s in good shape

My Times column is on the UK’s high standard of living and social freedoms:

Years ending in 15 (or 65) have often been good ones to be British. In January, we celebrate 750 years since Simon de Montfort first summoned Parliament to Westminster. In June, we mark the 800th anniversary of making kings subject to the law in Magna Carta. Three days later it’s off to Waterloo for the 200th birthday of the battle.

There’s more. In October, we cry God for Harry, England and St George, and beat the French again at the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. November, for those with any fireworks left, marks the 300th anniversary of arguably the last battle fought on English soil — at Preston, where the Old Pretender’s last hopes died.

Unlike this year’s remembrance of 1914, these are cheerful and somewhat British events — with the exception of Waterloo, where Blücher’s Prussian army and Wellington’s Hanoverian troops deserve a large chunk of the credit. Indeed, Waterloo and Preston excepted, they are English events (I presume the French do not celebrate Agincourt or Waterloo). So it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.

I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.

All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.

We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.

On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.

In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.

Even the things that were getting worse turned around. After 1965, levels of murder and other crimes rose for a while, but then fell back and are now lower than they were then. The number of cars produced in Britain fell as our industrial relations deteriorated, then rose again and will soon break the record set in 1972. Britain is making more cars than France [corrected from Germany], 80 per cent of them for export.

Likewise, London’s role as a capital of global finance shrank for a while, but then boomed as never before, giving us an unrivalled role in international service industries — confounding the pessimists who warned us that we would become an irrelevance in the world, especially if we did not join the euro. London’s population shrank, then boomed as it became the city everybody’s rich people wanted to live in. That brings rising house prices. But rather that than Detroit’s urban deterioration.

Compared with many other countries, we have enviable opportunities ahead of us. We are sitting on one of the world’s largest shale-gas fields. Our economy is growing faster than any other in the western world. Unemployment is falling faster than anybody predicted and is less than half that of France, one quarter than of Spain. According to the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Index, published last month, we are the most entrepreneurial country in Europe and the fourth most entrepreneurial in the world, our highest-ever ranking.

Don’t forget our natural advantages: a Goldilocks climate with none of the brutal cold or blistering heat that most countries experience at one season or another. Enough rain to keep the country green throughout the year, unlike most countries, but not so much (on the whole) as to annoy. And sufficiently unpredictable weather to be worth talking about, unlike in many countries. That it is a bit too dark at this time of year is a price worth paying for those long summer evenings.

Then there is a stunning coastline that is never more than 70 miles away, few snakes, bears, mosquitoes, tornadoes or earthquakes and no poison ivy to worry about when walking or gardening.

Plus a huge variety of landscapes crammed into a small land area and an amazingly rich architectural heritage. In short, we have an economy to rival America in a culture to rival Italy on a landscape to rival France with social cohesion to rival Germany.

Then we have a democratic tradition as strong as any in the world and an adherence to defending liberty that — for all the threats — is still far more robust than most people in the world can experience. And to cap it all, a brilliantly neutral and beneficent head of state who this coming September becomes our longest reigning monarch.

There is one giant fly in the ointment: the huge and rapidly growing national debt, alongside our steep levels of personal debt. Rightly, that will obsess us in an election year. Even so, let’s pause at New Year to contemplate what might go right in Britain.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times