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The mood in Britain is to muddle along | Martin Kettle

This may be an era of economic turmoil, but people have little appetite for a radical alternative

The words of a young poet still speak down the ages to new generations who also believe that the world cannot continue like this. “Now, God be thanked who has matched us with His hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping, / With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power, / To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.”

Convulsive periods inevitably feed brave new moods, to which Rupert Brooke gave a voice in 1914. Whether the convulsion is of war, political upheaval, technological revolution or, as today, economic turmoil, many respond by concluding that the world which brought things to this pass must be purged.

Financially wracked Britain in 2012 sometimes feels like one of those convulsions too. Many on the left write about it in such terms. Even David Cameron has recently talked about a crisis of capitalism. And when has any British prime minister ever done that before?

Yet it is important not to get carried away. There are at least three immense objections to the claim that this is a moment for wholesale change. The most important of these is that there is no consensus in Britain that liberal democratic capitalism has irrevocably failed, as opposed to having let us down, let alone any agreement about the alternative which might be put in its place. Serious specific problems, yes. But even losing a wheel doesn’t necessarily mean scrapping the car.

It’s not just the political class but the voters who want, more than anything, to get the show back on the road. Socialism still has adherents, but it is a religion, not a programme. There is no credible socialist alternative nor any growing support for it. Green politics, the great hope of some, remains even more marginal. Nationalism, as Paul Mason suggested, may eventually be a bigger gainer from the current global economic turmoil, with wider consequences that are hard to predict. Religious fundamentalism has nothing that approaches a widespread hold.

So, while it is reasonably straightforward to describe what has gone wrong in global markets and boardrooms, and in the eurozone and the failed UK banks in particular, it remains extraordinarily hard to conceptualise a plausible alternative. The failure of socialism has a lot to do with this. But it is also extremely striking that almost no one anywhere in the western world has argued that China, the most obvious available example, offers a preferable alternative to the western model.

The second objection is that we have very few genuinely useful historical models to draw on either. In an era of economic collapse like ours, many naturally look for answers to the inter-war period of the 20th century, in which the global capitalist model last appeared to face an existential challenge. But, with the large exception of Keynesianism, which itself needs to be handled with care, the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s are almost all irrelevant.

Ours is not an era dominated by the devastation of past war or by the prospect of future war either. The British economy is not, so far, crippled by closure and unemployment levels of the sort which it confronted in the 1930s. There are no alternative European centralised state models such as Germany on the right or Russia on the left to be tempted by. There is no cult of central planning either, as there was, even in 1930s Britain. The racial, eugenic and sexual panics of the interwar period, about which Richard Overy writes so interestingly in his book The Morbid Age, are thankfully absent too.

The final objection is that the public shows little sign of interest in radical change. Yes, the government is disliked and the cuts resented, though the Labour alternative is no more popular. But most people are getting by. As a result, YouGov’s Peter Kellner pointed out this week, public belief in the necessity of the cuts has grown, not shrunk, since 2011, while economic pessimism is not as pervasive now as before either, even though the economy is weaker. People are fatalistic. Once they get used to the initial shock and fear of hard times, it seems, they hunker down and find that life, generally, carries on tolerably well.

Put these things together and you get much closer to a truer explanation of a great paradox. People may resent economic distress and have little confidence in governments or politicians, yet they still expect to get through, and so they are generally unattracted by radical change. As the Cambridge political scientist David Runciman put it recently, the overriding temptation is to muddle along. That’s the mood in Britain; but it is also the mood, so far at least, in places such as Spain and Greece, where conditions are much more stark. Kicking the can down the road isn’t as glamorous as revolution, but it isn’t as destructive either.

If this is right, then the implications matter for all politicians and for those who write about politics. The truth is that most people seem to want the system we have got, not some other system. That may not go down well in the grandstand, but it works on the field. Sure, we would like the system to work better in various ways, and we are open to sensible and fair suggestions that don’t put what we have at risk. But we also know that things are rarely as bad as they look.

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