Imagine spending these last 40 years in Germany. You see a relatively homogenous nation become one in which a quarter of the population have a migrant background. It absorbs, at short notice, a much poorer country of 16mn people called the German Democratic Republic. It grows out of pacifism to wield lethal force in Kosovo and beyond. Through all this social change, which should rock the political system, you enjoy a scarcely believable level of civic stability. Olaf Scholz is just the fourth chancellor you have known since October 1982.
All praise, then, to the Hohenzollerns. Only a monarchy, I am led to understand, could have presided over such orderly evolution.
Forgive the snark. It is just that, amid Britain’s real and natural grief, some bold claims have been made of late about the uses of tradition. One is that only by keeping some key things the same can a society change: continuity enables its opposite. The implication is that, without the monarchy, the UK would never have become a polyethnic and irreligious nation, at least not so peacefully. Who believes this? And can they not think of republics that have managed the same feat? In a generation or two, Ireland swapped the pervasive church for legal abortion, agriculture for professional services, scant diversity for quite a bit, little wealth for rather a lot.
This isn’t a case for a UK republic, a cause for which there is neither great demand nor need. The point is rather that Britain gives its traditions far too much credit. At best, they are innocuous. At worst, they impose a material cost on the nation. There is a link between Britain’s conservatism and its seeming fate as a middle-income country with a world capital attached.
Think of all the constraints on growth in the UK. The connecting theme is traditionalism. One is the planning regime, which stops the expansion of productive cities and money-spinning research laboratories. It does so on the touching premise that England’s countryside is uniformly beautiful. All democracies have Nimbys. In few are they so able to spin their self-interest to other voters as a defence of the national soul. (Often, they are defending some grass by junction 6 of the M1.)
Or take the fiscal treatment of the old. With student loan repayments, a working graduate faces a severe effective marginal tax rate. An entrepreneur who forms and sells a business likewise owes the state a share of the capital gain. Sit on a house since 1990, by contrast, and amazingly little will be asked of your passive asset appreciation. Nor will any government with a survival instinct tamper with the terms of your pension. Again, the problem is not just the elderly’s raw weight of votes. It is the ease with which the rest of the electorate is moved by mystical appeals to tradition: old age as a moral achievement, residential property as something inviolate.
There is yet a third example of what we might call expensive conservatism. But Brexit is something the UK is still years away from being able to discuss. The leaders of that movement still insist it was a vote for a more, not less, open country. (On immigration policy, they have been roughly as good as their word.) Most of the 52 per cent who voted that way, though, wanted a more familiar and traditional Britain. Only a liberal zealot would deny the legitimacy of that desire. Only the intellectually dishonest, six years on, would deny the economic cost of it.
At each turn, Britain’s economy seems to run into a growth-blocking wall of past-worship. Ancient universities? A national specialism. Training the less academic? The halfhearted project of every government. And so labour productivity continues to lag much of the rich world.
In a sense, the nation’s dilemma is captured in the persons of Liz Truss and King Charles III. One is a modern-minded, growth-at-all-costs prime minister. The other is a pastoral romantic. There are encouraging signs of the monarch growing terse and elliptical in the expression of his opinions. But these command a following in the country regardless. To arrest the UK’s decline, Truss will have to confront them.
There is no disgrace in choosing tradition over growth. Other countries seem to do just that in their revealed preferences. But Italian per capita income is easier to live on when there is also Italian weather. Japanese stagnation is not so bad when there are also Japanese crime rates. If the UK embarks on the economic trajectories of those countries, what is its cushion?
Meaning, unity, comfort in grief: as the past two weeks have shown, Britain finds all these things and more in tradition. It won’t find prosperity there.