I have just come back from travelling around Europe by train. I wanted to show my children some of it before the re-imposition of passports and border checks.
I suppose I have come to three rather simple conclusions as a result:
- The trains in continental Europe are effectively run, and on time, and they are clean and affordable, and above all humane – because they re not being run by the Treasury under our bowlderised version of privatisation – beyond anything I had realised before.
- The value of the pound made the cities we visited ruinously expensive.
- There is a clear future role for the UK – in fact we already seem to be fulfilling it: it is to be the world’s cultural and creative engine.
Let me just step back a little before explaining what I mean. Many of our stops – Rome, Venice, Vienna – were lovely, but also the worn-out husks of former empires which have not really survived the transition.
But English culture, from Shakespeare to pop, is absolutely ubiquitous. Even the Doge’s Palace in Venice is currently hosting a John Ruskin exhibition.
We may have no future as a symbolic gesture towards an imperial past (as the Leave campaign seems to envisage) or once again become the workshop of the world (which is how I interpret Corbyn’s position) – though we do need to return to manufacturing.
But we do have an economic destiny which we are beginning to fulful despite ourselves, and helped by the enormous success of English.
The question is whether we can begin to put our still sizeable resources towards the fostering of creativity on a scale we have not seen before.
We will have to stop, for example, destroying the love of reading and writing that most children start with by giving disconnected comprehension passages and then getting to focus on adjectival clauses and other guff – thank you, Michael Gove for that.
Is there a political party capable of making that intellectual leap? Both Labour and Conservative have attracted a combination of support from people who are both angry and backward-looking which doesn’t bode well.
Which leaves the Lib Dems. And I speak both as a Lib Dem and a free marketeer (in its original Liberal sense) when I say how frustrated I am. My fear is that the party has transformed itself from its central purpose (the radical devolution of power) to a limp version of itself, committed to compromise in all things.
They have not yet grasped, any more than Labour has, how the world has changed. And if we are going to avoid an authoritarian future, they will have to take the lead in unravelling the hand-wringing, do-nothing cult dressed up as economics, which has led us to this impasse. I mean the idea that anything about the market is objectively true and unavoidable.
When Joseph Chamberlain seized Birmingham for the Liberals in the 1870s, he first had to eject those who had run the city – a group of councillors dedicated to spending as little as possible, and calling themselves ‘The Economists’.
It is time we ejected them again and persuaded the voting public, not just than something can be done after all, but that it also will be done.