So here we are facing what promises to be the biggest crisis of European history. We are dying. There aren’t enough children being born. People are living longer – and expect to live reasonably well, with some health care and social welfare provision, some heating in winter and enough food all year round. Providing this is not too difficult with a normal healthy birthrate. But we don’t have one. We are in minus-births, or to put it more poetically, we have a birth-dearth.
Germany, Spain and Greece are the countries that will have the problem first, with economic problems of a major sort confronting — or continuing to confront — them in the next decade, and on a really big scale in the decade after that. What about Britain? Our birthrate is poor, if not quite so immediately dire we have had very heavy immigration which boosts the figures). We will face grave challenges in the years ahead.
We’re not thinking about all this at the moment. We’ve been given a cheering boost by the Olympic Games and that magnificent opening ceremony with its glorious panorama of British life and history, starting with a rural idyll, soaring into the Industrial Revolution, honouring the dead of war and the achievements in many fields of life, and celebrating British humour with the Queen and James Bond and a parachute drop. It was glorious, and it did us good.
What next? I don’t mean with the Olympics – there’ll be medals and cheering and anthems and as a Londoner I’m enjoying the atmosphere of it all, with helicopters clattering overhead and crowds thronging to Wimbledon and out to rural Surrey for the tennis and for bicycle marathons. But what of the longer term?
With the economic and social problems that face us over the next years, we are going to need some serious political leadership, presented with great good humour. Step forward the man with the hearty, reassuring and courtly voice that has been booming out over our Tube stations all this week. Yes, Boris, it’s you. Everyone knows that, as Mayor of London, you’ve relished the challenge of the Olympics – and so far it’s all been a resounding success, defying all the ghastly predictions about huge debts and traffic chaos and international humiliation and more. And everyone knows that your real heart’s wish is that the Mayoralty has just been a step towards greater office, and that you would relish being Prime Minister some day.
Boris Johnson could do the job of PM, no doubt about that. He is extremely brainy, witty and perceptive, and much more thoughtful and large-minded than he likes to appear. He is well educated – in a way that was once considered normal but is now unusual, with fluent Latin, a good knowledge of English literature, ditto history, and so on. His private life has been rather too – well, let’s just say exciting – but he seems to be a loyal and affectionate husband and father at present and has never pretended that he was particularly moral in the past.
More to the point, Boris is a realist. He knows perfectly well that there are economic woes ahead, and that these are connected – deeply connected – with the breakdown of crucial social structures and networks. This isn’t about morality – or, rather – it is, but it doesn’t have to be presented that way. A tax system that ceased to penalise families and instead massively supported men and women who chose to marry and produce children within a lifelong stable union, would provide the backbone of a sane social structure. Around this, a robust and generous approach to social welfare provision – loosening up of pointless bureaucratic controls and politically-spiteful restrictions so that churches and voluntary organisations could breathe freely – would allow a genuine community spirit to emerge.
Above all, Boris and any future team attempting to govern Britain would need to recognise what the Olympic Games are showing us: that people are a resource, not a nuisance. There would be no Olympic Games without youth – young, active athletic people surging about, creating this vast network of events and activities that bind us to the Games of ancient Greece long ago and to recent years and decades and to our own country’s history.
People are born in families, and cherished there. This isn’t a matter of moralising or looking back to some imagined golden age: it’s facts. Family breakdown, a low birth rate, young people disconnected from parents and grandparents and family loyalties – all this spells Trouble. Big trouble. First, things like steadily rising crime rates, and occasional rioting, and hopeless levels of educational achievement. But then, and accumulating swiftly, come the big things like economic problems, unpaid debts, old people with no one to care for them, a workforce that can’t achieve things because it lacks motivation and skills and knowledge.
C’mon Boris. If you really have some plan and hopes, I daresay you are already thinking about how to achieve them politically. And I daresay that David Cameron is watching his back because he knows it too. It may not be very pretty to watch the knifing, so I hope that if you ever do get into 10 Downing Street it’s done smoothly and with goodwill and with a general recognition that your time has come. But the crucial thing is what happens when you get there. Skip any platitudes. The rather hearty, bullish tone that you have adopted during these Olympic days will serve well. But, above all, whatever your personal morals, think about the great realities on which a nation, any nation, rests: babies, children, youth, the future. We need support for family life, abandonment of dopey ideas about Government support/funds for social experiments like same-sex unions and contraceptive centres for schoolchildren, a tax system that rewards marital stability, an emphasis on community responsibilities and respect for groups that provide these.
The Olympic ideal is centred on high achievements in a spirit of noble traditions: the man who is Mayor of London at such a time cannot but be thinking along large lines and with large hopes. Think on, Boris. You might just be thinking in the right way.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.