Why Britain is up the spout, by Nick Cohen and a Frenchman

I have recently seen two articles ruminating on the causes of the recent credit crunch and resulting recession, one by Nick Cohen in the Observer Review last Sunday, and the second by Jaques Monin, the London correspondent of Radio France, in the G2 section of yesterday’s Guardian. Cohen blames a government of the left which sold out its principles and let the market run riot; Monin blames a culture in which everything is assessed by its monetary value, in which pragmatism rules and the state is allowed to run riot. They both have good points, but Monin’s are let down by his blindness to the limitations of the “French model”, while Cohen jumps at the chance to attack the leftist/Islamist alliance yet again.

Monin’s generalisations about the British drowning in debt sound like one of a certain American’s diatribes against white middle-class Muslim converts, and it ignores the reason a lot of people did run up debts: they needed somewhere to live. There were a number of factors pushing up house prices in London and the south-east, in particular, to the crazy levels they reached in 2007; among them were City bonuses, the attraction of London to wealthy foreigners, the ability of double-income families, particularly those without children, to outbid others. However, people did not borrow because they just fancied spending; they borrowed because they needed somewhere to live. Rents became more expensive than mortgages as much rented accommodation was owned by people who were in the process of paying off mortgages on the rented properties, forcing tenants to pay their mortgages plus profits.

Some of his observations are spot-on: the bit about the British standing by while the state spies on us, encourages us to grass on our neighbours and records details of every phone-call email, the bit about the lack of protection for British workers, and the bit about the detachment from politics and the sameness of the two major parties and weakness of the others. However, I do take exception to the section about multiculturalism and the young “losing their bearings, becoming cut off from society, joining gangs, turning to knives”. An awful lot of the problems which affect our inner cities also affect the French out-of-town slums to which most of the country’s ethnic minority population has been consigned, and we heard an awful lot about them in 2005 when their youths rioted. This is not to say that the UK has not had its share of problems in its dealings with its ethnic minorities, but I do believe that they are better integrated here than in France: levels of ethnic mixing are high, differences are acknowledged and, to a degree, celebrated, rather than officially denied as in France, and whatever you read in the papers, British Muslims are not rioting and are not blowing up tube trains. People do not use “red, white and blue” to mean “white”, as this term does in France, and politicians do not refer to our youth as scum, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nick Cohen, in his three-page article extracted from his forthcoming new book, gives an account of the decadence of “yesterday” and how the government, composed of people who had once been critical of capitalism and its “spivs” and “funny-money men”, prostituted themselves to the very people they had once denounced; most of this is well-written and has great impact. However, the worst aspects of the “poisonous environment” of the early 21st century are those you would most expect him to identify:

The first years of the 21st century were a second “low, dishonest decade”: a time when embattled feminists from the Muslim world were more likely to be belittled by writers from the New York Review of Books than the editor of the Daily Mail; when you were more likely to find anti-Semitism by looking to the left rather than the right; and when the general secretary of Amnesty International was more likely to denigrate human rights as white, middle-class indulgences than the general secretary of the Communist Party of China.

All of these are, of course, his usual hobby horses, and he conveniently overlooks the fact that at least one of the “embattled feminists” was demonstrated to have exaggerated or fabricated a large part of her horror story, and that many of the “feminists” who came from or targeted the Muslim world had openly declared anti-religious and communist stances, which were conveniently ignored by their “liberal” audience, and were quite happy to stick the boot into religious Muslim women, just as long as the anti-religious were all right Jack. The political climate of 2003 in which liberals became buddy-buddy with the Worker-Communist Party and other liberals, leftists and Marxists shared platforms with people from the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with Labour’s capitulation to the market; that was already in place in the mid-1990s, before they even came to power, as New Labour was precisely all about borrowing as much Tory policy as to make them acceptable to all but the most hard-core Tory voters.

It’s all too easy in hindsight to tell the British that our economy is in a mess because of general moral failings in British society, but much as I think the French model has its benefits, it has its drawbacks as well: there has been mass unemployment - measured in percentage, not in absolute figures - for years, the state has a reputation for being bureaucratic and restricting people’s liberty, and besides, people will balk in this country at paying the taxes required to support a social security system as lavish as France’s. A large part of the reason our economy became overblown in the past decade and a half was that Britain, and particularly London, was attractive to wealthy outsiders, for such reasons as its cultural openness, the fact that English is spoken, and the low levels of bureaucracy and regulation. Much of Europe did not offer that, and France in particular offered a language which was in international decline and a culture which was closing up; Britain had a reputation for being friendly to outsiders both rich and poor, which is why most of the refugees who made it to France wanted to make it to England.

So, we must learn from the mistakes of the “long party” and make sure that the stupid practices and socially destructive trends which led to the bust of 2008 are not allowed to continue after the dust has settled; but we must not close in on ourselves and lose what made London the vibrant place that it is. If we lose this, London (and other cities in the UK) could become at best bigger and dirtier versions of any British provincial town, or at worst, burned-out shells once the various communities have finished settling their scores.

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