The Financial Times yesterday suggested that the recent success of Asian economies could be the result of a young population, and as average age rose, growth would fall. Behind this, and a hundred similar theories, is the belief that a nation’s future is determined by statistics. We peer at the world through a cage of bar-charts – on productivity, literacy, trade, and per capita GDP. And when we measure ourselves against the Norwegian oil fund, Finnish numeracy, the Chinese urban population, or Indian engineering, Britain seems always to be in the lower-middle, and falling steadily. The bars of the bar-chart seem unbreakable. And although we are exhorted in endless articles – like sleepless hamsters – to run faster to catch up with China, our numbers seem to define our destiny. Of course, this is not the way that anyone’s history works, still less Britain’s. A nation’s fortune can be altered, in defiance of all the numbers, within a generation. Who would have bought English bonds in 1560? The Exchequer was bankrupt on a more than Greek scale. We had the sectarian divisions of modern Iraq, and had less prospect of a strong, legitimate ruler than Afghanistan. England’s last continental territory – Calais – had just been lost. Compared with the rising splendour of France, the civilisation of Italy, and the power of Spain, we were a pitiful, obscure Northern island managing decline.
And yet within the next twenty-five years we had taken the cultural lead in Europe, broken the Spanish super-power, and opened English-speaking America. Or take Scotland, which in the eighteenth century was the second poorest country in Europe, and by the nineteenth century had become the second richest. How did this happen? Marxists imply that national wealth is driven by impersonal factors of raw materials, class structures, and markets. But in fact it was politics and culture which created our success. Politics, which today can seem inert and disappointing, was then vibrantly, destructively inventive. English statesmen had just torn apart the Catholic church, plundered the monasteries, and broken the Bishops and nobles (and in a different way, the Monarchy itself). The House of Commons was beginning to accumulate power in a constitutional battle which would last a century. Economists may see Elizabethans simply as “opening new markets”, but Sir Walter Raleigh was only in a very partial sense a tobacco merchant. He, and the others who navigated the Atlantic, challenged the great Empires, and secured concessions in Bengal were not MBAs but worshippers of medieval chivalry, Greek learning, and the Bible. They had the grandest possible conception of themselves, strove to be more than merely human, and often behaved as though many things – their God, their honour, their pride – were more important than their lives. (Raleigh’s best sonnet is a reflection, on theatre, written in the tower on the eve of his execution). Even the Victorian era, which we like to view through statistics on the cotton trade, or railway miles, was driven as much by dreamers, fantasists, and unruly adventurers taking irrational risks: the deserted rock of Hong Kong island was acquired more as a whim than a policy.
These past worlds are not our world: such people – their politics, their culture – are alien, and in their attitudes to Empire or Ireland bigoted, narrow and cruel. But they remind us that national power is not an unrolling mathematical formula. Today, our growth is crippled above all by lack of confidence. Banks will only lend, companies will borrow, hire and invest, when they have confidence. And although reforming tax, and regulations, negotiating deals on bank-lending, and digging broadband may help, it will not be sufficient. For confidence includes character, energy, focus, imagination, and an attitude to risk – things which are not simply the product of economic levers, but of faith, creative art, political engagement and our personal, human and national identity. It is easy to feel that we are an exhausted country that gave its best and last in the Second World War, and having stretched ourselves beyond our limits, has no energy to continue. We can describe ourselves as an ageing, diminishing, indigenous population, which can hardly support itself. We fantasise about reducing our concerns to a tiny circle around our home, and forgetting about the costs or opportunities of a wider world, wondering whether we mightn’t model ourselves on some country with an economy, a population, and a history a tenth of our size – Norway, perhaps, or Denmark.
But Britain’s history is in the vanguard, and so should its future be. Let me finish with something which makes me hopeful about Britain. The British men and women who volunteered for our charity in Afghanistan took great responsibilities, studied languages hard, travelled adventurously, were courteous to staff, attentive to local culture, and bold in completing projects. Take Will, 26, from the Welsh borders, who created a national TB centre for Afghanistan in two years. They showed characteristics, and potential, which our politics, and culture, today too often neglects – and which should make us careful of what we try to forge with our industrial or education policy. And in Cairo, last month, I talked to someone of great judgement, discretion and common-sense who could quote eighteenth-century poetry, had won a scholarship to Vienna, and has just completed a report on Somali piracy, and discovered she had studied in a state school in Penrith and comes from near Gamblesby.