Chin Up Britain, There Are Better Days Yet
Francis Bacon, famous Irish-British painter. His paintings are known to reflect the timeless agony of being human
British pessimism, perhaps the only thing more reliable than London rain. Some say it’s a weather response mechanism, whereas others deem it a national hobby. Either way, when Brits say ‘things could be worse,’ this is usually with the tacit understanding that they probably will be. Our Chancellor’s recent warning against the dangers of the UK ‘talking itself into economic decline’ serves as a compelling call to reflect on this collective cynicism.
All humans tend to have an inherent negativity bias: a proclivity to attend to, learn from and use negative information far more than positive information. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were exposed to immediate environmental dangers; being more attentive to these negative stimuli played a useful role in survival and thus has become an indelible evolutionary function. The negativity bias has been repeatedly revealed in adults’ judgement to this day. When making decisions, people consistently weigh the negative aspects of an event or stimulus more heavily than the positive aspects. This biological predisposition did not go amiss among journalists and broadcasters, a fairly morose bunch, who quickly figured out that negative coverage is more attention grabbing and does better than positive coverage. This in turn creates a self-reinforcing cycle of negative information, retention and dissemination: a ‘doom loop,’ if you will.
The issue also becomes particularly serious when considering the consequences this negative thinking has for the state of a nation’s economy. Melancholy does indeed affect future outcomes. Whilst conventional economic analysis might confine itself to rational, quantifiable facts, economic decision makers are often intuitive, emotional and irrational. It boils down to the infamous idea that John Maynard Keynes developed in the 1930s, of ‘animal spirits.’ Animal spirits represent the emotions of confidence, hope, fear, and pessimism that can affect financial decision-making, which in turn can fuel or hamper economic growth. If spirits are low, then confidence levels will be low, which will drive down a promising market—even if the market or economy fundamentals are strong. Likewise, if spirits are high, confidence among participants in the economy will be high, and market prices will soar.
And so, it becomes a concern for us when Brits in particular seem to have a special propensity to think bad thoughts. You see this streak of melancholy particularly in English music—many of our greatest pop musicians are deeply melancholic. Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, even Sting, all tap into that melancholy vein. Pink Floyd too had its moments, as illustrated by the 1970s hit ‘Time:’
‘Every year is getting shorter Never seem to find the time Plans that either come to naught Or half a page of scribbled lines Hanging on in quiet desperation Is the English way’
And then there are all those melancholic icons: Amy Winehouse, Adele, Lewis Capaldi, Laura Marling— compare them to, say, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, or J-Lo. Their American counterparts often lean more toward the upbeat.
The recent release of the Ipsos Global inflation Monitor found that Britons are significantly more pessimistic about the cost-of-living crisis than the global average and are also more likely to not see an immediate end to the current era of high inflation. Britons are also global leaders in feeling the squeeze on their disposable incomes, with 46% expecting that the amount they have left to spend after bills and living expenses will fall over the coming year.
It would come as no surprise to Keynes and his followers then, that the UK has suffered from decades of under investment. Business investment is lower in the UK than in any other country in the G7, and 27th out of 30 OECD countries, ahead of only Poland, Luxembourg, and Greece.
Not only is British cynicism partly responsible for the chronic doom loop of underinvestment we face, it is having serious consequences for the state of British politics. A study by King’s College London found that the UK ranks among the bottom third of countries for confidence in the government. For the first time, a narrow majority of the population say they would vote to rejoin the EU. Now whilst I might have been thrilled with this result before the referendum, wallowing in the consequences of a decision made seven years ago is evidently unhealthy for Britain’s future. Increasing voter apathy is also fuelling disillusionment within Westminster, as we see fewer MPs willing to remain in political life. Almost 70 MPs have said they will leave at or before the next election.
It is important to note that healthy criticism of the UK’s institutions is most certainly justified. The United Kingdom is unique in some of its failures. There is no wishing away the challenges we continue to face after Brexit, Covid, a string of short-led governments, and the sticky inflation we face. Compared to the average European country, Britain today has a backlog of 4.3 million homes that are missing from the national housing market. This housing deficit would take at least half a century to fill even if the Government’s current target to build 300,000 homes a year is reached. In stark contrast to their G7 peers, UK corporations find themselves trailing in key performance indicators, notably in staff training and development. Additionally, they show a marked deficit in the modernization of HR systems and processes, as well as in implementing efficiency improvements.
However, despite the challenges (note: many of which can only be solved through improved public and private sector investment) the UK has its share of triumphs that deserve the spotlight. Take for instance, the altruistic distribution of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine to developing countries at cost—a glowing emblem of the nation’s inherent generosity. Furthermore, when crisis unfurled in Ukraine, an astounding 150,000 UK households opened their doors to host Ukrainian refugees, echoing the communal solidarity first displayed during the initial pandemic lockdowns. This laudable spirit often slips under the radar in public discourse. Our nation’s strides toward cultural inclusivity are undeniable, underscored by the appointment of our first Asian Prime Minister. Whilst we, unsurprisingly, have all been quick to criticise his policies during his time in government, his race has never mattered. With breath- taking coastlines and picturesque villages set against historic monuments and majestic mountains, the UK stands as a symbol of natural splendour. And so, if temperament is fate, perhaps the best prescription for the British malady is to focus on these strengths a little bit more.
Things will only look up if we allow them to. Hakuna Matata, Britain.