At some point or other, we’ve all thrown our hands up in disbelief and cried, “What’s happening to this country?!” or “The world’s gone mad.” A lot of British people have just given up trying to follow what’s happening to Britain anymore. People can barely keep track of where we were as a country last month, let alone 2 years ago; how on earth we ended up with this law or that reform; why every few weeks or so, we wake up in a different society governed by different rules. Over the last 5 years, change has happened to Britain fast; in dramatic leaps, and over a very short space of time. There has been nothing gradual about the last 5 years and frankly, it’s been exhausting to watch. It’s no wonder the British have become numb to politics.
The problem is this. Being disinterested in politics doesn’t make you stupid. Being disinterested in politics does make you underinformed and ill-equipped for disaster. Ask any British person what’s happening to their country and the simple response from your average joe is, “Everything’s changed so quickly.” Ask where Britain is going and you’ll get either a roll of the eyes, a resigned sigh or a shrug. The apathy has set in deeply and many are immovable from it.
There are just 10 days to go til the next UK General Election. A lot of people are sick to the back teeth with party political propaganda all over the TV and can’t wait til it’s all over. And so for some, my enthusiasm for voting is over the top. They couldn’t be more wrong. If ever Britain needed a hardcore election it’s now.
There have been two televised debates between Brown (Labour), Cameron (Tory) and Clegg (Lib Dem) covering domestic policy and international affairs; the last will be on economy and taxes. This is something we’ve never done before and taking prime advantage of the public’s political apathy, are the tabloids. The media are delirious with opportunity as the work comes easy; sensationalist headlines, spoof campaigns, repetitive soundbites and salacious stories of corruption pour out, emotionally whipping people up into a sudden frenzy of divisive opinion. The clock is ticking and thus far, opinion polls have fluctuated erratically across Britain like a rollercoaster. While the media have everything to gain from swaying the public, once the election is over, the media will be onto their next catch while the public are lumped with the consequences of a bad choice. So how does a tired, languid and fed-up Britain know what the right choice really is?
The truth is that this comes down to the lesser of three evils.
As current PM, Gordon Brown represents the vote to increase ‘free’ handouts for the ‘unfortunate’ public, ‘free’ benefits to keep people smiling and happy (even though everyone knows there’s no such thing as a completely ‘free’ benefit), with a general greater reliance on widespread government control over everything. Essentially speaking, Brown’s manifesto will keep Britain as a slave to tax increases (which, by the way, is how Labour pays for all your ‘freedom’ passes and ‘free’ this and that). His idea is to reinforce a nanny state which is completely dependent on the government for absolutely everything. (That’ll work for the politically lazy who can’t be bothered with reading the small print, “so long as Big Brother doesn’t do anything nasty” like, deny the public a right to fight a reform before it becomes a law–which, of course, Big Brother will.) Lest we forget–Brown never actually wanted the role of PM when he was forced into the position by default of Blair’s resignation in 2007. In following his Labour advisors, he frankly hasn’t the foggiest idea of why he’s made the promises he has, nor how on earth he will execute them, financially nor strategically. Despite appearances and his talk of us hoping in the ‘experienced party’, Brown knows deep down how his last 3 years of service has reviled many. His plea for the public to vote Labour smacks of, “I know I screwed up, I’m sorry, I promise I won’t do it again.” Anyone with a rebellious child knows there’s only so many times you can believe that line as gospel.
Despite appearing to be the ‘refreshingly different’ speaker of the three, Nick Clegg is the opportunist of the traditional ‘conflict’ between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. His appeal is less of a strategic one and more of an emotional one, whispering to the listener, “You don’t have to watch these two fight it out for another age–pick me. I’m someone else altogether and after all, isn’t it “different” that you’ve been looking for all along?” Clegg’s approach is an unveiled, intentional play on the public’s distrust in previous Tory/Labour governments; an assistant to the aforementioned media circus. If you’ve been won over by his Mr. Straight Talker speeches, read the Liberal Democrat manifesto first. For the first plan of his inexperienced party, Clegg wants to “fix” the problem of Britain’s 900,000 illegal immigrants by ‘forgiving’ them for breaking the law with an amnesty to “stay in the country, work without being a criminal and we’ll reward you with citizenship.” What’s terribly wrong with that? Oh, only the consequences. Only a nice and easy, brand spanking new loophole for the next wave of illegal immigrants to make a fresh attempt on Britain’s borders. And apparently our citizenship is no sacred thing to Clegg, since he wants to give it away to any old Tom for practically nothing. If “Politically Correct Britain” is driving you up the wall, Clegg isn’t your man for that either: the Liberal Democrats’ central goal of making Britain more EU-centric will further weaken our economy, our say in what Brussels can lord over us and their ‘environmentally friendly’ banner smacks of more restrictive rules about good old carbon emissions and crying over polar bears, that have left us the laughing stock of the world driving revolting electric cars.
The Conservative Party are no angels either. The Thatcher years have such a bad reputation in Britain; a synonym for ideological betrayal. Cameron’s identification with Thatcher’s views have made him a target for criticism, largely because of Thatcher’s allegiance with liberalism in the face of traditional Tory politics. The current Conservative Party were involved in the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal of 2009 which damaged their appeal as a ‘clean politics’ party. Cameron has echoed Obama’s winning formula with the headline “Vote For Change”, producing further skepticism from traditional Tory supporters who take issue with what that represents, given the consequences America is facing having voted for a liberal president under such a slogan. In a modern multi-cultural Britain where the idea of social class has become more and more fragmented, the current public have less of an affinity with the traditional British class structure, which have been a fundamental skeleton to previous Tory politics. Cameron’s manifesto is Eurosceptic which could easily cause internal conflict through Britain’s membership in the EU and the huge number of Europeans living in Britain. Cameron has not guaranteed that taxes will be lowered which the public views as a grey area.
What the British public need to realise over the next 10 days is that the direction Britain has been going in has not been working up until now. This popularity contest will get us nowhere: we need facts and facts can only be found in party manifestos. Comparing manifestos only, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are only walking us in that direction faster; under the guise that this direction is the only way, any other way is “backwards” and your only choice is simply who you want to walk with. This is completely untrue and a giant deception. With this to mind, the Conservative Party are the lesser of the three evils. Currently this is the only party which has a focus on managing the country’s current problems whilst minimizing the side effects that could create future problems. Having a cap on immigration is one such policy. The consequences of this reform are minimal compared with Clegg and Brown’s solutions which would quickly compound the problem. Exacting a punishable consequence for residents and citizens who are able to work but don’t want to is another. This hardline on benefits will inject vigour into a reluctant nation that’s been used to getting freebies for over a decade; a far cry from the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ attitude Labour and the Lib Dems exude. Cameron’s idea of putting 16-yr old British boys back into mandatory National Service is a champion idea; it’s a hard line but a vision with a long term benefit. Whether or not Cameron will deliver on his promises, only time will tell. But any fool will tell you that when a country loses it’s identity and roots, it loses it’s way. Let’s hope The Conservative Party’s promise to bring our identity back is worth voting for.
We make no secret of our disgust these days, when it comes to our opinion of modern Britain. So few are the patriotic of British soil, that anyone daring to utter a few hopeful musings is quickly shot down with a range of political and social artillery. We point to the miserable, grey sky and declare, “Look at it! Who wants to live in this dump?!” We squirm our way off of packed public transport and exhort, “What a hole this place has turned into. England’s become no better than a third-world country!” Time and time again, I’ve witnessed the speed at which the jolly advocate of the homeland, will mournfully give way to the protagonists of pragmatism (say that with your mouth full). Whether down the pub or over coffee, with a “Yeah, I s’pose you’re right…” we’ve fast turned ourselves into a grumbling, unbelieving people. Why have Britain’s people chosen the solitary route of cynicism, in the advent of modernity?
Can we blame ourselves? Or are there real grounds for this growing anti-patriotic feeling? We’ve all heard the saying, “Misery loves company.” Perhaps so. Unfortunately for the British, who’ve adopted this moniker when it comes to talking about their own country, this hasn’t really bred the type of ‘company’ or ‘togetherness’ that lasts longer than a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits. Admit it: when our whinging is done and the tea mugs are dry, in all truth, the cynicism we so stubbornly celebrate as the “essence de la Britannia’, leaves a rather ugly residue on our lives. It’s a sober thought that makes us shifty and uncomfortable. Being cynical all the time, is a heavy weight to carry–yet nobody likes to dwell on that. The distance to the pub for alcoholic relief is shorter than the distance to a change of attitude. At least that’s been the reasoning in Britain for the last few centuries. But what brought us to this point in the first place? The unease with the country started with a trickle. Whole books can be written in response to this question; I hope to deliver a summary.
Here’s an illustration for you. There was a grand era of my life in 1996 where I had an ‘enlightenment’ about why we call it The Beautiful Game. Suddenly you couldn’t tear me away from Match of The Day. I became a complete and utter football fanatic for the next 3 years of my life; I lived, breathed and ate the game. And there was a lot to shout about; the 1990’s were an incredible time for British football. It was the era of our homegrown: Ryan Giggs, Paul Gascoigne, Matthew Le Tissier, Glenn Hoddle, Roy Keane, Robbie Fowler, David Beckham, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Ian Wright and the discovery of one Michael Owen. Some of the greatest local players in footballing history took to the British pitch during this decade. Then someone had the bright spark of heavier investments in international transfers. One by one they came, dazzling the stadiums with their incredible performances: Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, David Ginola, Dennis Bergkamp, Johan Cruyff, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Zinedine Zidane, Eric Cantona, Emile Djorkaeff, Marcel Desailly….the frenzied crowds cheered, but they had no idea what had just begun. The chipmunks had already started chewing away at the foot of this enormous, old oak tree. The buying abroad did not stop there; more and more club profits were earned in this manner and as more of these football greats took to their retirement posts, Britain was completely deficient in homegrown talent to replace them. Some enthusiasts would call me a flake, but I fell out of love with football when the British football game became unrecognizable. Few attempts at local recovery did little to stem the flow of the international presence on British fields. The whole country was saturated, our national clubs were fretting. We had sold away our game, our heritage.
What’s left for Britain to be proud of, locally? As with football, so followed cricket and rugby. Following a post-WW2 habit of employing immigrants to boost the economy, Britain has long been in the business of giving away it’s national treasures in one big estate garage sale. The benefits of multi-culturalism, ethnic diversity and foreign tolerance, are outweighed by the losses that our centuries’ forefathers worked so hard to maintain. Some might respond, “Well it’s just like the Royal Family; hardly a huge loss when tradition has little purpose these days.” But is this really what it’s has boiled down to, celebrating erosion too? I can’t help but look at the growing rubbish dumps filled with VHS players, mobile phones, 4:3 televisions, car scraps made of plastic and ask if modernity really has as much to offer as age-old British tradition that was made to last. Where has our national pride gone? Sold! to the gentleman in the first row with the Gucci tie and Ferragamo shoes.
A proposed solution, if any. Don’t prepare for death by putting the kettle on and inviting everyone round for another whingefest. Misery doesn’t love company, it’s isolating. Every new wave starts with a few pigeon steps: we British must get off our backsides and consciously decide to support local efforts. Don’t do it to be a quirk, do it because you’re tired of complaining about how rubbish at everything your country is. Decide to be discerning about your consumer habits: instead of whinging that there’s nothing British to be proud about, make a point of buying British. I’m not exactly the first to say it, but this will never catch on if we sit around waiting for each other, nor if we begrudge the point as being a wasted, pathetic effort. This country is it’s own worst enemy because we wait for others to do the passionate town-crying for us. Make no excuse: this is YOUR country. Take responsibility for your own patch of grass, because nobody came and took the “Great” out of Britain, we handed it to them with our apathy!
At 6am today, I was rudely awoken by a horrifyingly bad nightmare, although that was the least of my worries. It was an unforgivably dark Monday morning, unforgivable only because the usual organic tweet and twitter of birds dwelling in the Midwestern sunrise did not greet me as I slurped my coffee. My brain immediately reverted to it’s former 28 years of conditioning: Carolyn, there is an unrelenting torrent of rain banging against your window and an insipid grey, overcast sky hanging overhead. Which must mean you are about to grab your coat and brolly and walk 15 minutes to the nearest Piccadilly line station to cram on a Tube to work. The Family Fortunes’ buzzer sounded in my head: “ih-irr! Wrong answer!” No, I was in St. Louis, I was self-employed with a car parked outside and my half-asleep mechanisms were going to have to make an abrupt stop, right now. And this was where my frustration began. I was being forced to switch gears far too early in the morning and for something as apparently inane as torrential rain. As a result, I started feeling homesick for the miserable weather I fought to leave and the old reliable routine it induced; a ride on a leaky carriage, sparks flying off live rails, wet umbrellas ruining belongings, steamed up windows and the comfort of moaning Britons all around. Yet when I last checked, my Facebook reported at least three London friends wailing and pining to live in New York City after their very first visit to America in said city. I was once in their shoes. I got as far as St Louis, Missouri–further than most Britons get, and I don’t overlook that. But what is this fascination we Britons have with America and what is it based on?
With all the grudge-holding towards the US that Britain received infamy for after the Declaration of Independance in 1776, it is a small miracle that our nations are still friends today. All jokes aside about the national stereotypes of surly Father Britain disapproving of the behaviour of it’s “immature” young son, America, our relationship to each other is a fortunate and beneficial one in both directions. For participants, Britons hanker after America’s “bigger, better” attitude longingly, Americans pine for Britain’s quaint richness for history, reserve and grandeur. Yet the current British public perception of geographical America is still, one only based on exposure to huge, popular cities like New York and LA. Not quite even viewing-range, given that these cities aren’t a reflection of the average American life. This is something that few Europeans are really aware of and the average American is quite aware of this. But who can hardly blame us? Our tellies inform us with American sitcom, romcom and dot.com businesses from these two prosperous cities day and night; we are dazzled with America as far as New York and LA have taught us, buying flights in our droves to return crying and pining with armfuls of currency-friendly shopping. We start fastidiously looking into visa programs and green card lotteries, seriously considering forsaking Queen and country. But the question remains, while life may be better when we switch countries, is life really better when we switch cities?
Many people have asked me if I am happy in my new country of residency. My response is that I am unable to answer that yet. Still speaking from a seat of transition, I can say with some surety that life is certainly better having switched countries and there are several reasons for this. Comparatively speaking, America is a nation governed in a fashion that has completely different reverberations at ground level. These aren’t always agreeable but generally speaking, it is sometimes a great improvement, having been born under a British government which operates in a way that affects the public differently. There is a marked quality difference in agriculture, farmed produce and many other necessary resources made available for reliable consumption and usage. However this is somewhat universal to the US, it is when we look at the city microcosm that things change. And quite simply because American life doesn’t merely hang on to the threads of existence on the East or West Coast, I have yet to find happiness in a US city that is not New York or LA. Thankfully, the search has only just begun.
It is no secret that I am a big city girl and a self-confessed urbanite. What I am doing in a city like St Louis confounds a lot of people, even sometimes myself. Living amongst 8 million people crammed into 609 square miles for approximately three decades has always been unequivocally normal to me. 25 million separate journeys are made everyday in the capital to and from work. In the 15 minutes before 9am, 200,000 people use London Underground and 8000 buses cover over 2000 miles of streets to get people to work. It is said that the average commuter travels the equivalent of 2.5 times around the planet to get to work: London’s Tubes cover 300,000 miles of underground tunnel. While astoundingly impressive, these are not statistics that Londoners have time to stop and contemplate, they are borne into the grain of everyday living. Unnoticed to us all, Londoners live shoulder to shoulder and move amongst people, people, people, everywhere, all the time, non-stop, unrelenting. To someone not born in these conditions, this is the ultimate worst nightmare; out comes the common hyperventilatory talk of claustrophobia, asphyxiation, suffocation, bombardment, panic. Yet to the rest of London, it is just an auto-pilot dance, business as usual, the hum of the concrete jungle, the nucleic energy driving the country, the rhythm that keeps the capital having the first say on everything (The chimes of Big Ben are transmitted to 183 million listeners across the globe). London is considered the hub of the trading world, not least because of the fact that London is in the centre of two major time zones. A trading day begins just as the Far East has reached close of day, and finishes just in time to catch New York’s market. 40% of the office space in Greater London is grouped around the square mile; a typical day will see £640 billion passing through the trading system. And while I am sure that my current domicile has it’s own statistical boastings, any city has a lot to live up to when considering what I perceive normal. I won’t lie, living amongst 3 million people spread over 8,846 square miles is like living in a county bigger than Yorkshire—with LESS people: it is uncomfortably isolating and alienating.
To those who are considering moving to the US, I say come, it’s beautiful, there’s nowhere else in the world like it and I am sure you’ll succeed–it’s the American motto. But please, for your own sakes, study the demographic before hurriedly selling off your wares and applying for visas: there are at least, approximately 20,000 cities in all 50 states and you’ll likely only have money enough for one. Patience is a virtue; exercise it and you may learn a little more than what you thought you knew about what makes you tick.