The blight in Blighty

EPA/Anja Niedringhaus

I’m what used to be known in less politically correct times as a whinging pom. Locals, among whom I now count myself, will be relieved to learn that I mainly moan about my former, rather than my adopted, homeland these days. In that regard, however, the pickings are rich.

No doubt my jaundiced attitude to the UK reflects a not untroubled adolescence and the fact that the education authorities forgot to actually educate me. When, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the headmaster, I left Lawrence Weston Comprehensive School clutching my one O level (English literature – thanks for asking), little did I imagine I’d ever get a job, let alone one I actually enjoyed.

In the face of some stiff competition, my alma mater may have been the worst school in Bristol. The staff were employed primarily for their skills in short-term crowd control rather than teaching. The school itself has now been closed down and looms over the surrounding, unrelentingly grim, run-down housing estate like a permanent boarded-up, graffitied reminder of public policy failure on an epic scale.

I mention all this partly for therapeutic reasons, but mainly because social mobility in the UK has actually got worse since I first left. According to The Guardian:

24% of vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of top Medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 54% of top journalists, 70% of High Court judges … went to private school, though only 7% of the population do.

Even Britain’s former education secretary, Michael Gove, has declared that the number of Old Etonian school chums in the cabinet – including prime minister David Cameron and a number of his key advisers – is ‘ridiculous’. What’s more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that this hegemony of the posh boys is widely accepted – even encouraged.

The popularity of another Old Etonian, Boris Johnson, is a reminder of just how far a combination of noblesse oblige and amiable buffoonery can get you in British politics.

Under such circumstances, it’s no surprise that at least some of the Scots might be contemplating cutting their ties with Perfidious Albion. After all, there are currently more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs. Scots might be forgiven for thinking that other than being a useful place for the English to park their nuclear subs and providing what can only be described as a palatial holiday home for the Queen, English toffs take them for granted.

Britain’s nuclear fleet – not to mention the two new aircraft carriers – is emblematic of the spending priorities of a nation that is plainly struggling to come to terms with its reduced importance in the world. Unbelievably enough, it was only 100 years or so ago that Britain ruled the waves. But now it’s just a middle power with expensive delusions of grandeur. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that this eye-watering expenditure on defense is the price of maintaining a presence at some of the world’s bigger, more prestigious tables.

Yet the chance to strut the international stage in way that commands even grudging respect may be coming to an end for British prime ministers, for the simple reason that Britain may be coming to an end, too. While it’s still unlikely, it’s no longer inconceivable that Scotland will go its own way – up to a point. Apparently the Scots might like to keep the pound and – even more bizarrely - the Queen, but they’d still like to be sort-of independent, nevertheless.

Apart from the host of unprecedented technical problems this will throw up about the currency, responsibility for national debts, the status of the armed forces and relations with the EU, it may well trigger a debate about the identity of what remains of Britain, too. This is a recurring recent theme in British politics heightened by Britain’s ambivalent, if not hostile attitude toward Europe, and its at times uneasy attitude toward some of its own population.

If Australia has generally got one thing very right it’s multiculturalism, notwithstanding the current paranoia about potential terrorists returning from the Middle East to sow mayhem and insurrection.

In Britain, by contrast, they really have produced home-grown terrorists who have killed their countrymen, sometimes in especially gruesome fashion. This is not as remarkable as it may seem, though. One of the most striking things about some large British cities like Birmingham, where I recently lived, is that entire areas are effectively foreign enclaves with little connection to the rest of the country and precious little sense of the sort of ‘Britishness’ that Cameron tries to encourage.

Even in London, where widespread, albeit poorly regulated, immigration has had a more positive and dynamic effect, it has also exacerbated some fundamental internal divides. ‘Up north’ things are generally less buoyant, a reality highlighted the entrenched gap in opportunities and living standards in different parts of the country.

Such differences are manifest in Britain’s steady de-industrialisation and the enormous power and importance of financial capital in the City of London.

No doubt financiers and public school headmasters alike have welcomed the influx of Russian oligarchs, for example, but these sorts of developments are helping to transform the economic priorities of the nation and make its capital too expensive for the local population to actually live in.

If the Scots do leave, the crisis of ‘British’ identity is likely to become even more acute. Unresolved internal tensions may become more visible – especially if what’s left of Britain pulls out of Europe, too. This would be an act of short-sighted folly at the best of times, but utter madness for a much smaller, less consequential British rump.

Greater England could be painfully revealed as the peripheral tax haven, theme park and European outlier it has gradually become. Don’t expect the posh boys to rescue it.