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30 March 2012

National greatness

  • “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.”

And yet, says Rory Stewart, in another brilliant article, national greatness is still within our grasp. He begins by condemning the notion 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… our numbers seem to define our destiny.”

“Of course,” he goes on, “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.”

Throughout our history, he argues, our national fortunes have been revived by heroic individuals:

  • “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.”

For all their flaws, which Stewart duly acknowledges, these “unruly adventurers” remind us that “national power is not an unrolling mathematical formula”:

  • “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.”

If Britain still has such reserves to draw upon then there is cause for hope; but, either way, Rory Stewart’s view of our past, present and future is a bracingly conservative one.


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