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The state of Britain

You've never had it so good

Globalisation has done wonders for Britain, though not for all Britons
Feb 1st 2007 | From the print edition

COUNTRIES, just like people, have moods; and Britain's is somewhat grumpy right now. It is bored
and disillusioned with politicians, not least with Tony Blair. It is unimpressed by public services,
despite the public money Mr Blair has poured into them. It is cross about rising taxes and interest
rates. It is concerned about social cohesion and frightened by its home-grown bombers. It is furious
about the Iraq war and George Bush. And, to cap it all, its cricket team can't win anything.
Yet in a way it is odd that Britain's spirits should be low. The place is enjoying a period of
extraordinary prosperity. Fourteen years of stable growth have kept unemployment down. There have
been social gains as well as economic ones: fewer children and pensioners live in poverty than ten
years ago. Crime is broadly lower. And with prosperity has come renewed political clout. Britain has
helped to shape aid for Africa, the debate on climate change, European enlargement and, last week,
negotiations to restart world trade talks.
All this is especially remarkable in contrast with the recent past. A quarter-century ago, the home of
the industrial revolution was closing factories and mines. The class war raged as unions took on the
government and business. In the South Atlantic a weird little war palely recalled Britain's glory days.
Comparison with mainland Europe is also gratifying. After the humiliation of il sorpasso, Britain's
GDP per head has once more overtaken not just Italy's, but also France's and Germany's. Although
Britons are too good-natured to indulge in anything as Teutonic as Schadenfreude, they might be
forgiven for a small smirk at the troubles of their old rivals.
Hurrah for an imperial past
There are lots of reasons why Britain has done well, and most of them are connected to the country's
enthusiastic embrace of globalisation (see survey). The early restructuring of its economy gave
Britain an edge, accelerating the shift from mass manufacturing, where it had few advantages, to
high-value-added goods and services, where it has many. A City that had earned its keep for centuries
by financing trade and foreign investment attracted new business as others too began to think
globally. Governments since Margaret Thatcher's have kept labour markets flexible and product
markets competitive, allowing firms to respond nimbly to changing opportunities.
Perhaps because of its imperial and trading past, Britain is remarkably at ease with globalisation.
While American politicians stoke anti-Chinese hysteria and French ones fuel worries about the
disappearance of jobs to eastern Europe, British politicians keep off the subject. The last vestiges of
Britain's home-owned car industry closed in the run-up to the last election in 2005, causing barely a
ripple of protest.
But globalisation has social, as well as economic, consequences. The flow of foreigners into Britain
has accelerated over the past ten years, partly because of demand (booming economies need new

workers) and partly because of supply (developing-country disorder and new entrants into the
European Union). Although this huge wave of immigration has done wonders for the economy,
Britons have also found it socially troubling; and that's one of the reasons why the country is not
entirely at ease with itself.
Change usually makes people uncomfortable. So does the presence of lots of foreigners. But the
government's policy has not helped. It chose long ago not to foist a common national identity on new
citizens but to allow and indeed encourage them to retain the dress and language, faith and customs
they came with. Time and propinquity, it was thought, would produce a richly diverse yet integrated
society. But many now believe that multiculturalism has led instead to what Amartya Sen, an
economist, calls plural monoculturalismgroups that live side by side but do not touch.
Policy, like custard, should be fine-grained not lumpy
This is of more than academic interest, for Britain harbours a pool of home-grown terroristsa tiny
minority of its 1.6m-strong Muslim communitywho struck fatally once and may have been
thwarted again this week (see article). A new survey for Policy Exchange, a think-tank, finds young
British Muslims value symbols of their Muslim identitythe veil, for example, and sharia law
more than older ones and say they have less in common with non-Muslims than their parents do.
Should Britain then abandon multiculturalism and all its works and press for more assimilation?
David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, thinks so, arguing that members of ethnic minorities
need to be treated not as part of a community whose values they may not share but as individuals
equal before the law. Mr Blair suggested something similar in December and Gordon Brown,
chancellor of the exchequer and the prime minister's likely successor, is wont to wax lyrical on the
importance of Britishness for all. The trouble is that Britishness is hard to defineespecially since
devolution has encouraged the Scots, Welsh and even English to prefer their more specific identities
and even harder to inculcate.
Yet the government should try to replace the lumpiness of multiculturalism with the finer-grained
texture of individual rights and responsibilities. This is both truer to liberalism, which places the
individual at the heart of things, and likelier to provide the economic flexibility that globalisation
rewards. Such considerations do not lead easily to practical policies. But a start would include
ditching the Downing Street guest-list of Muslim community leaders, rethinking faith schools,
pushing to get more Muslim women into mosques and careers, and squelching the homophobes and
extremists who refuse to acknowledge the right to free speech and equal treatment.
Much of that might be achieved by improving the quality of education, the best way to lift people out
of ghettos into the mainstream. It is also, by neat coincidence, the key to ensuring Britain's success
against ever-tougher competition as globalisation rolls on. No solution is perfect. Open your window,
and, yes, you are bound to admit a few flies; but the main lesson of recent British history is that fresh
air is good for you.