Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:
In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.
We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.
Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Airports are not quick construction processes, and Terminal 5 took twenty years to plan, design and build. The planning enquiry lasted four years, and sat for 525 days, the longest planning enquiry ever. Building lasted from 2002 to 2007, but then you don’t build the UK’s largest freestanding structure in a few months. Most people have forgotten the engineering achievement, unless you are standing inside and beholding the roof. What people remember is the opening. For ten days the system struggled to cope with the volume, 42,000 bags went missing and 500 flights were cancelled. It caused a media storm. All other disasters were ‘like Terminal 5’. The pessimists in the commentariat sneered and the TV news reported it as a major disaster. Then they said nothing. What they don’t tell you is that it works like clockwork, a huge terminal that handles 33 million passengers a year, nearly half Heathrow’s flights. A bad story is big news, and plays to our sense of pessimism. We don’t know how to handle success because we’re British, so we just keep schtum.
I could go into detail on similar projects – the British Library, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (turning Kent into the ‘patio of Belgium’), the Millennium Dome, HS2 or the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers. Anything grand and complex will be a disaster. It has to be. We’re British. Of course, the most classic example of this was the 2012 London Olympics. To everyone’s amazement our bid actually beat France and there was a genuine moment of national euphoria (I never tire of watching the winning bid announcement just to see Denise Lewis hammering the table with her fists). The next day, the 7/7 London bombings soon destroyed that spirit, and then the doom mongers moved in. First, there was a risk of a recount of the vote. Then the costs began to spiral. And then we saw the opening ceremony in Beijing and everyone said ‘We’ll never match that.’ And so the gloom spread. Danny Boyle was a most unlikely pick as director, which generated another wave of scepticism. As the big day approached, Andrew Gilligan in The Spectator said ‘We must still cross our fingers that we’re not aesthetically shamed before the world’, and the Independent warned that Britain’s embarrassment would be witnessed by a billion people worldwide. How wrong they were! I still watch the DVD of the whole ceremony because it is so brilliant, and says so much about the history and culture of Britain, while showing that we also enjoy having a great laugh at ourselves.
We face a political, constitutional and economic change with Brexit as complex and challenging as any of the projects I have already described. It will not be easy, especially if the EU negotiators refuse to negotiate and won’t admit that in Mrs May’s words ‘No one will get everything they want.’ But so much of the political comment that surrounds Brexit, the overall media narrative, is negative. Very little is said about what will be gained – free trade with poorer countries in the world, bilateral trade deals with country after country, the freedom to organise our agriculture and fisheries in a way that works for us, and above all a sea-change in our legislative process so that decisions about so many areas of our shared life really do get made in Westminster, enabling a fresh wind to blow through our moribund political life.
The biggest problem for us is that we do not have Monsieur Barnier’s Savoyard self-confidence. We are British, and we are all doomed. But don’t believe it just yet.