If professors and journalists have misled us about the causes of Britain’s illness, is it conceivable that the country has not been declining since the end of the war but, in fact, enjoying robust health—at least as far as social and economic indicators can measure such things?
This indeed is so. The unprecedented post-war growth in Britain’s prosperity has transformed the living standards of ordinary people. When the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee last year, each of her subjects on average enjoyed incomes commanding about four-fifths more goods and services than their parents. Whereas the father of the average British worker drove a motorbike and took the family each summer for two weeks in Blackpool, his son runs a new car and flies with his family on a three-week package holiday to Spain.
Britain has become a cleaner, sunnier, brighter place in which to live.
Thanks to greater output, the nation has been able to spend resources cleaning up rivers and lakes. London’s famous pea-soup fog has disappeared. True, the British air is now more sulphurous, but this is another sign of increased affluence : the emissions come from cars. Their numbers have swollen from one for every six households to three for every four.
If Britain is so well off, why do so many voices—intellectuals of the left, right and centre—sound like mourners at a wake? The Cassandras are talking about that slippery concept of relative growth and prosperity. Although in 195o output per person in France, for example, was 17 per cent behind Britain’s, by 1973 it was 32 per cent ahead. Even more startling has been the rise achieved by Italy. A Briton produced three times as much as an Italian in 1900, but by 1973, and despite the great gains registered in Britain, the Italians had drawn even. In other words, while Britons have got richer, their neighbours have got richer faster.
Neither statistics nor economics will answer the question why British workers push themselves less than their counterparts in Europe and the USA. Britons, to the dismay of the textbook writers, do not appear to be optimizing. Workers and managers do not seek the greatest possible income; they seek instead an adequate or satisfactory level of income. They prefer tea breaks, long lunches, slower assembly line, longer weekends to strenuous efforts for more money.
This, to be sure, is a sweeping generalization that obyiously does not apply to all Britons. It does not cover the keen-eyed soccer and cricket stars, leaving the country for richer rewards elsewhere, or the countless craftsmen and artists, professionals and artisans for whom work is a joyful, creative form of expression.
The preference for leisure over goods applies chiefly to those toiling in mines or on assembly lines, labouring at routine tasks in huge white-collar bureaucracies. Their work does not, cannot, enlarge personality. They work because they must, to earn enough to support their wives and families. It. is these workers who have decided that there are limits to how long and hard they will labour to buy a second television set or earn the down payment on a bigger house.
This preference for leisure can be measured in several ways. The British have chosen to spend more and more on the arts, for instance-with astonishing results. Taken as a whole, London is the acknowledged world capital for drama. The heavily subsidized National Theatre is the envy of the West. Moreover, London alone boasts five world-class symphony orchestras, all receiving state funds that could have been invested to increase productivity in chemicals or ship building; British society, through budgets adopted by elected governments, has chosen differently.
Britain has frequently been held up as a horrible example, a warning to others. With an inflation rate above its industrial homologues, an unemployment level close to the highest in the West, it is hardly the New Jerusalem. Neither is it the chaotic, miserable swamp depicted by the gloomier analysts.
Calm appraisal suggests that Brit-
ain at least a Britain somehow
shed of its running sore in Ulster-is a comfortable, decent, creative place, burdened with problems as are all industrial societies, but moving hesitantly towards a more civilized life. Its lack-lustre performance in what Blake called “these dark, Satanic mills” may be less a symptom of sickness than of health.
Western countries are looking for ways to make work more human, exact less of a toll. It is conceivable that in time they too may find that some jobs can be humanized only by doing less of them, either by working at a slower pace or abandoning them entirely. As these rich societies insist on more satisfying work, they are likely to look towards Britain. Then, instead of being a warning, Britain will serve as a model in tomorrow’s world.