The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 1st, 2006

Cherie and other blessings of our time

Tis the season to be jolly. That is not always easy in these cold, dark days. On the bestseller list this Christmas was a jeremiad called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? and a right-wing think tank published another more elevated one called Decadence. I myself on this page have held forth in this glum spirit from time to time. All the same there truly is a great deal to be jolly about, at least in this country. So this new year my resolution is the one made for me long ago by a favourite headmistress: count your blessings.

There are plenty of them even in the most unlikely places. Take the prime minister, for instance. However angry he may make us, on the left and on the right, he is at least a top politician who has not got his snout in the trough. Britain’s leader is not personally corrupt, or so I believe, and in the world today, not least in Europe, that is a most remarkable and wonderful thing.

We might have had Chirac or Mitterrand or Schröder (scandalously now working for that Russian stooge company Gazprom, after signing a pipeline deal with them just before leaving office) or the pork barrel in which American politicians have their trotters sunk. We take it for granted that our political leaders are not like that.

Tony Blair may have fibbed to us and helped various rich cronies but it was not for personal gain (and what’s more it has all emerged through a free press and due process). The worst anyone can accuse him of personally is getting a couple of cut-price watches from Berlusconi, and he did pay for them what the mandarins told him to even if it was not the proper price.

He has accepted some faintly unseemly hospitality in sunny climes but the point is, surely, that we know about it — politicians here have to account in great detail for what they give and take — and Blair has had to give some money to charity instead. When David Blunkett bought a few shares that he probably should not have done, it was a resigning matter; there are still high standards of financial probity in public life. This is an extraordinary blessing.

Then there is the great blessing of Cherie. Her follies have reminded us that some of the supposedly great and the good are only human and just as misguided as the rest of us, if not more so. She also reminds us, in a sort of marital guilt by association, not to be unduly impressed by her husband and his cronies — another blessing.

At the time of Christmas shopping and the January sales, the cry goes up that we are hopeless, soulless materialists, pathologically commercialised, addicted to shopping malls and slaves to Mammon. There may be some truth in that, but it is also true that shopping makes the world go round. It is shopping, commerce and capitalism and the choice and tat that go with them that have enriched the peoples of the world, and certainly of this country, extremely fast. What’s more, many people — although not enough — have come to realise that for all its faults, capitalism has been the great liberator.

Poverty in Britain today — bad though it is — is nothing like the widespread poverty that shocked me in my childhood in the West Country, and that in turn was as nothing to the poverty that my mother witnessed as a girl before the war: she regularly saw children going to school with a scrap of bread and lard and without shoes.

Mature capitalism has gone a long way to defeat poverty and the result is that millions of people whose parents and grandparents were poor can shop till they drop. Never before have people been able to afford so much — so much varied food, so many designer clothes, so many cosmetics and treatments and technological toys, since their basic needs have been met. We are richer and healthier and have more pleasures and interests than ever before. Mammon has conferred many blessings.

What’s more the curses of affluence, such as factory farming, junk food and excessive waste, are something that everyone is aware of. If history is any guide, then greater prosperity and greater knowledge will enable people to deal with the problems of affluence. Meanwhile, the tragic, murderous errors of socialism and communism have been exposed; the evils of capitalism are at last understood to be much less. One hundred years of disastrous intellectual and political experiment have been discredited.

Almost the greatest blessings that I can think of personally are medical. Fifty years ago antibiotics were a newly invented expensive rarity in this country. Painkillers were primitive, anti-psychotic drugs were nasty and anti-depressants were not much better. A heart bypass or a liver transplant was almost a miracle only a few decades ago. If you were seriously ill there was little that could be done.

Now ambitious surgery, extraordinary drugs and wonderful painkillers are taken for granted to the point where there is a national scandal if a new cancer drug is not given to someone who wants it. We have forgotten that not so long ago, in my living memory, people died in long-term untreated agony, here in this country. Now we daily expect new miracle drugs, such as statins which will do for coronary artery patients what 1960s anti-depressants did to depopulate mental hospitals. There are bifocal contact lenses — and it was the invention of spectacles that extended and improved people’s working lives and fuelled the industrial revolution — and before long there will be smart pills to repair the brain and stem cells to repair any body part.

The main reason why the National Health Service has so many unmanageable problems is that there is so much good new treatment and that we are all living so much longer. This may be a mixed blessing, but it is surely a blessing.

Once you start counting blessings it is encouragingly hard to stop. It is true that there are grave international problems; it is true that people here are often depressed by cynicism. But the cause and the cure lie in the same thing — greater public knowledge, greater public openness and greater accountability than before.

We are all more aware of what goes on, which should be exhilarating as well as depressing; humans have been successful in solving the problems they have identified. New technologies and new inventions have always appeared to solve old problems; goodwill has always existed to try.

Happy new year.