The only certainty in Great Britain is uncertainty, argues Ron Wain, the managing director of Deep South Media and a former business editor and newsdesker at a regional daily newspaper. He says we are way too hard on ourselves, given the relentless pressures on our civil, economic, political and military infrastructures over the past 100 years. Here’s why:
We came to raise the dead, to cradle their shadows, to honour them in person.
By doing so, something more extraordinary was experienced: an overwhelming sense of collective self and identity.
This powerful occasion, paying heartfelt homage to our sons from exactly 100 years ago, brought the people of a humble countryside town together.
Young and old, hundreds of us, unprompted, had thronged the high street on the way to the First World War commemoration gardens, the ones with the swings and peeling climbing frame by the immutable river and medieval stone bridge.
We felt the unbroken connection of our own family histories as the melancholy sounds of The Last Post transported us to the barbed wire, trenches, bombs, mud and death in foreign fields from 1914 to 1918.
Overwhelming sense of pride
It struck me then, with startling clarity as we moved with invisible purpose to the memorial gardens, that we are way too hard on ourselves, given what has happened since 1914 when Germany invaded France and set Great Britain on a course which left 886,000 of our men dead out of the six million mobilised for duty for King and Country.
My maternal grandfather, Ted Burn, a railwayman, served with the Machine Gun Corps on the Western Front. My paternal grandfather, a baker, Len Wain, survived being blown up in a troop ship on the Mediterranean.
They witnessed such terrible things, yet did not turn away.
I am somehow 52, which means I have lived through half of the tumultuous history that has been Great Britain’s destiny since June 28th 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo, the violent opening sentence to the darkest chapters of modern civilisation.
Consider context before judging Great Britain
We all know this island of ours is deeply divided about leaving the EU but we would do well consider some context before judging Great Britain.
World War One was ruinous to us, in terms of manpower and cost. Somehow, we staggered to our economic feet, only to be belted by the Great Depression between 1929 and 1934.
Then came a haymaker punch, thrown by Adolf Hitler. His incendiary, psychotic cult-of-personality politics led to the deaths of 70 to 85 million people in the Second World War, including six million Jews in extermination camps.
Once again, Great Britain found itself in the frontline of war, defending liberty against fascism, with 450,900 men and women killed in the line of duty and 67,100 civilian deaths – many from bombing raids as Hitler tried – and failed – to weaken our famous resolve.
We were all but bankrupted by the Second World War, with renewed hardships; 14 years of food rationing finally ended in July 1954 and in December 2006 we – Great Britain – discharged our last loan repayment to the USA from that conflict, having had to borrow tens of billions of pounds from our transatlantic ally.
There was also a ‘forgotten’ conflict that added to the national death toll and national debt – the Korean War saw nearly 100,000 of our troops in action; 1,078 of our men were killed.
One million of us made homeless
Meanwhile our cities needed rebuilding, such was the damage inflicted by Germany’s ‘conventrate’ – a sinister verb used by the enemy to describe the level of destruction they inflicted.
A million of us were made homeless; 250,000 homes were reduced to rubble and two million more were badly damaged.
They are your cities, such as London, Liverpool, Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Sheffield, Cardiff, Swansea, Manchester, Portsmouth, Hull, Plymouth, Clydebank and Belfast.
Rebuild we did.
But the Cold War, too, cost, as the Allies and Soviets played war games, with mainland Europe divided between democracy and communism in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, before the Berlin Wall, that brutal symbol of the Iron Curtain between East Germany and West Germany, was torn down by liberated, grateful hands.
Sick man of Europe
Meanwhile, Great Britain, which had the highest level of productivity in Europe in 1960, became the “sick man of Europe” in the 1970s and early 1980s, infamous for nationalised industries, low productivity, picket lines and petty demarcation disputes over jobs.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was regarded as the most bitter industrial dispute of modern times and, as a reporter at the Nottingham Post in 1995, one year after the coal industry was privatised, I still recall visiting colliery housing estates where proud men had daytime TV for company – little else.
I cannot take sides. My father, Richard Wain, a working class man from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, was the figures man for nationalised British Steel and it broke his heart when he had to oversee the business case to shut Ravenscraig in Scotland, the largest hot-strip steel mill in Western Europe, because of yet another global recession and the slump in steel demand. More than 23,500 jobs, including 10,000 from the supply chain, disappeared.
My father occasionally let me see his office – in his case, the city of steel that never sleeps – the Port Talbot production plant in South Wales. He’d drive about, our yellow Triumph Dolomite dwarfed by gigantic mobile ladles carrying molten steel, and I sensed even then that this place was sacred to so many people for its essential role in Great British manufacturing.
Away from the financial pressures on the crumbling twin pillars of coal and steel, there was also terrorism to contend with – the Provisional IRA, a republican paramilitary organisation, repeatedly targeted the people and buildings of England in a 25-year campaign.
Everyday fear of terrorism on our streets
The death toll was heartbreaking, the everyday fear on our streets palpable; from nearly 500 attacks, 115 deaths and 2,134 people injured.
A businessman I know is haunted by the killings of seven of his bandsmen colleagues in Hyde Park – the two bombs on July 20th 1982 also claimed the lives of four other military personnel and seven horses.
The biggest bomb detonated in peacetime Great Britain, at the hands of the IRA in Manchester city centre on 15th June 1996, resulted in injury to more than 200 people and caused the equivalent of £1.3 billion in damage, with the Bishopgate truck bomb in the City of London in April 1993 killing one person, injuring more than 40 and leaving a £350 million bill.
One of my colleagues recalls how a blast in London threw her mother to her floor whilst photocopying in an office some way from the explosion, such was the force.
With a sense of déjà vue and repulsion, the death and destruction have been repeated in recent years by Islamic terrorists; only the brilliant work of our security services have prevented other atrocities to date.
War, war, war
Fate decreed that Great Britain was not allowed to rest when it came to defending the realm. The Falklands War in 1982, when Argentina invaded the islands off the southern tip of South America, resulted in the deaths of 255 British military personnel (with many subsequent suicides by traumatised veterans), three islanders and 649 Argentineans.
I cycled extensively in the southern tip of Argentina 12 years later – in disgust, a middle-aged gaucho walked out of a remote bar in the foothills of the Andes, having first asked me where I was from. As he turned to leave, he used his hand to make the threatening gesture of a throat being slit. This man’s face of hatred stayed with me, a salutary reminder that war makes for the longest of memories, in the same way that an elderly Dutch woman I met some years ago could not bring herself to talk to Germans following the invasion of her country in May 1940.
As if all the above was not enough to contend with, Great Britain also joined the largest military alliance since the Second World War, to defeat the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. There were 47 British deaths.
Then we were caught in the Iraq War, from March 2003 to May 2011, with the deaths of 179 British service personnel alone.
The audited cost of the Iraq War to Great Britain was put at £8,164.2 million by the Ministry of Defence, and £21,315.7 million for our involvement in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, where the military deaths reached 456.
…And more conflict
In a peace-keeping capacity, British forces were also involved in the conflicts in former Yugoslavia from the early 1990s – conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia which chillingly shadowed Hitler’s ethnic cleansing.
In what is regarded as the worst war crime since the Second World War, 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims – boys and men – were murdered at Srebrenica on July 13th, 1995, by Bosnian Serb forces.
Sky-high interest rates also hindered Great Britain’s recovery from all that had gone before. My two brothers both handed over the keys to their homes in autumn 1989 – the borrowing rate on their mortgages soared overnight to nearly 15%. Repossessions were at a record high.
Compare that to the base rate of 0.25% in August 2016, the lowest in 300 years and itself the result of the financial crisis which started in 2007 with Northern Rock – the first run on a British bank in 100 years.
Indeed, such was the severity of the credit crunch, Great Britain’s output shrank by a staggering 4.2% in 2009. You’d have to rewind to 1974 to see such a sharp drop.
The banking system had all but run out of cash
If you are young enough not to know anything about the Great Recession, when various high street banks had to be part nationalised to save them, we were just hours away from not being able to withdraw money from cash machines on one particular date in October 2008. Liquidity had all but dried up, the banks paralysed.
In a cold sweat, I managed to move money with just hours to spare before a well-respected savings provider, paying 6% interest, went under.
Nothing could be taken for granted in that febrile time, the impacts of which many of us are still feeling today through austerity measures implemented as the government pared public spending to levels not seen since the Second World War.
For instance, according to a new report by the Resolution Foundation think-tank, workers in their 30s are earning £2,100 less a year than people who were their age when the financial crisis came in like a wrecking ball.
That global financial crisis caused output to contract by nearly a third.
Writing in the February 9th 2019 issue of Estates Gazette, the commercial property magazine, Sony Kapoor, managing director of think tank Re-Define, stated: “On average, in the EU and OECD countries, debt-to-GDP ratio for governments is around 30% higher than it was back in 2008.”
Some of us may not be aware of another costly episode – Black Wednesday on 16th September 1992 cost us taxpayers nearly £3.5 billion. However, the event, which saw the government withdraw the pound Sterling from the European exchange rate mechanism (itself the forerunner of the single currency Euro, introduced in 1999), was regarded in some quarters as an economic liberation.
All of the above, in some small or large part, led to the political tremors of 2010, when the first coalition government, comprising Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, was formed since Sir Winston Churchill’s war ministry.
Then, in 2016, came the referendum which saw a slim majority vote to leave the EU, with the departure date scheduled for March 29th, 2019, and now delayed to October 31st.
That we are one of the top five economies in the world, sharing the table with, in order, the USA, China, Japan and Germany, despite all that we have endured, is nothing short of miraculous.
Resilient we are, as evidenced by latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics: Employment in the UK, for January to March 2019, was 75.6%, with 32.70 million in work – the joint-highest figure on record. Unemployment was recorded at 1.3 million, a drop of 914,000 over five years. At 3.8%, the unemployment rate has not been lower since 45 years ago, in 1974.
“It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Which takes us to the words of Sir Winston, who helped Great Britain roar like a lion when encircled by the wolves of fascism.
He said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Continue, we must. Courage, as always, in adversity.
Uncertainty appears to be Great Britain’s destiny, whether we like it or not – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.