Why living in the past is denying the UK a future

 

I’m as guilty as anyone of this; guiltier than most even. Apart from Max Hastings, Christopher Nolan and Gary Oldman, perhaps. I wrote The Summer of ’45 as a commemoration of the 70-year anniversary of D-Day. I worked with Dame Vera Lynn to tell her story of touring Burma and singing to the Forgotten Army in 1944. I wrote an award-winning, real-time, blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Britain on social media for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

But of course it’s not only me – we have recently had Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman won his Oscar. Dame Vera Lynn, at 100 hundred years old, was amongst the bestselling female musical artists of 2017. The British publishing industry continues to have an insatiable appetite for Second World War titles, which are eagerly consumed by wealthy Brexit-voting baby boomers who are about the only segment in society who still have the time and money to sit around actually reading a sizable quantity of books, while the rest of us work 60-plus-hour weeks just to stay afloat.

Writing about history has been a large part of my career and how the United Kingdom stood firm against Nazi Germany is a cornerstone of this country’s modern story and folklore. I think it’s important and I don’t want to knock it too much. But other countries are bemused by this obsession with the past – see for instance the German Ambassador to Britain. I share his sense of  puzzlement. I believe that as a country (and I would argue that the older generations are more to blame than the younger ones) our collective cultural obsession with the past is damaging to the UK – we are spending so much time creating and consuming cultural artefacts about the wars of the twentieth century, that there is very little space for visions of any kind about the future. It means that as a nation we are failing to adequately prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.

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The 25 year plan for the environment

So, the government – with a tap of a wand and a puff of smoke and Michael Gove’s mercurial year 10 prefect’s smirk and Theresa May’s sanctimonious ‘Caring Conservative’ face – launched their 25 year environmental plan in January. Reaction to it has been mixed. Professor Alastair Driver offered up a ‘cautiously optimistic’ verdict which chimed with my first thoughts. He writes that ‘we at Rewilding Britain feel that the content [of the plan] is promising. And we look forward to helping ensure that its delivery lives up to its aspirations for a “greener future”.’ The note of caution comes from the fact that the plan is really just a collection of well-meaning statements with no obvious plan to put any of it into action. Which made it, in the words of George Monbiot, ‘A Grand Plan to Do Nothing’.

He writes:

‘In terms of rhetoric, the 25 Year Environment Plan is in some respects the best government document I’ve ever read. In terms of policy, it ranges from the pallid to the pathetic.

‘Those who wrote it are aware of the multiple crises we face. But, having laid out the depth and breadth of our predicaments, they propose to do almost nothing about them. Reading the plan, I can almost hear the internal dialogue: “Yes, let’s change the world! Hang on a minute, what about our commitment to slashing regulations? What about maximising economic growth?”‘

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The problem with referendums

An often overlooked problem of the whole Brexit referendum is not the result, but the mechanism that was used to achieve it. The truth is that the United Kingdom is not used to referendums and that has meant that at least part of the crisis that has ensued from the 2016 vote has been how to interpret, contest and implement the result.

Only three referendums have ever been held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom, including the 2016 Brexit referendum. Not only that, but our first past the post electoral system means that the national result at general elections is actually only ever an aggregated result of all the separate constituency votes. In other words, the UK has a highly localised electoral system – and there is very little precedent for any sort of meaningful national vote unlike in many other countries where there are, for example, presidential elections and proportional representation on a national basis (parties are awarded seats on the basis of their percentage of the national vote) .

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