This ToryDiary is not about party politics. It’s about us as a nation. We know from countless examples throughout history of the resilience of the nation state – their ability to resolve internal disputes, to unify in adversity and to weather international storms.
But we also know that they can be vulnerable to severe psychological shocks – particularly when there is a mis-match between expectations and events, or between their view of themselves and the hard lessons learned by experience. Consider what happened when Germany, the brightest cultural and technological light of early 20th Century Europe, was ravaged by military defeat and economic chaos. Or when an indebted and bomb-battered Britain had to work out its post-Imperial place in the world. Or when the USA, flushed with spending power and the near-universal cultural influence of the 1950s and 1960s, had to come to terms with its bloody, grinding defeat in Vietnam (an experience that superpower is still grappling with).
I fear we may be facing a mismatch on a similar scale in the 21st Century. What are our implicit expectations of the coming decades? Faster technological change, continued medical progress, ongoing luxury to a degree that much of the world would find unimaginable, even for those Britons considered less well-off. The first generation of “digital natives”, who have never known a world without the liberty, indulgence and glorious chaos of a virtual world, will soon be entering adulthood –
But is that the sum-total of what we should expect for the course of our natural lives?
The Pax Democratica which many expected after the fall of Communism lasted barely a decade (or as Noel Gallagher so eloquently put it this week “…until al Qaeda flew those planes into those towers…things before that were f****** alright.”). Afghanistan and Iraq have been followed by ISIS, and now by a land war in Europe between Russia and the Ukraine. It doesn’t really matter whether we want to fight ISIS or the Kremlin, because they are pretty intent on fighting us – through terrorism, assassination or conventional warfare.
The deep trauma inflicted on our politics (not to mention on our soldiers) by Iraq in particular has left us leery of engaging in other conflicts, even when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Questions are even raised as to whether we should honour our commitment to defend NATO allies, should they come under Russian attack – a concept that would have shocked the previous generation, and which would essentially end our ability to forge meaningful alliances in a dangerous world.
Imagine the worst was to happen, and Russia was to invade say Estonia or Latvia. Even if the political will existed to honour our NATO commitments, does our society still have the resilience to countenance the prospect of young British men and women engaging in a traditional war against a relatively sophisticated and modern opponent, or to bear the likely casualties involved? For that matter, do the young British men and women willing to be on the front line exist in sufficient numbers?
It may be easiest to say “No, and it isn’t our problem anyway.” But the possibility of a Putinist restoration of the Warsaw Pact, or at least an expanded sphere of dominance controlled by a hostile Russia, would itself challenge our confidence in a comfortable future. The wealth and security we take for granted would be under threat if such a thing was allowed to happen.
Not that an expansionist Russia is the only challenge to that dream of the 21st Century. The appeal of ISIS to thousands of young people in the UK makes a rising rate of home-grown terrorism a near inevitability. Lee Rigby and Charlie Hebdo were shocking individual events – have we really though about how we would respond to such events becoming relatively regular, while still maintaining a free society? The risk of a descent into endless snooping and overbearing security powers is very real, as are the risks of beheadings and bombings becoming disturbingly common.
Those are the two main threats to the security of the future, but there are other factors that could disrupt the prospect of its comfort, too. Concerns are growing about the attrition of antibiotics, for example, and the low rate of their replacement. The shock to the system of a return to the days before modern medicine would be severe – both in terms of the human cost and the unimaginable political consequences for the NHS.
In combination, such challenges to our expectations at home and abroad, in public life and in private, would be difficult to swallow. Quite what they could do to our cohesion, our confidence and our democracy it’s impossible to say.
I’m not a pessimist – far from it. I believe that human ingenuity, and particularly the ingenuity of people living in free and democratic societies, can overcome any obstacle that man or nature might throw at us. But that can only happen if we recognise that such obstacles exist and prepare to defeat them before they strike. The inherent danger of repeated success is a false sense of security, and we have been very successful for a long time.
The difficulties for our leaders to raise such issues is clear – it’s far easier to say “You’ve never had it so good” than it is to follow up with “…but it’s going to take hard work to keep it that way.”