Most British people don’t have the first inkling of what a crisis is. They think it’s a political thing. “Government in crisis”, and so on. Whatever happens at the top, life will go on as ever. There will be food in the shops, medical supplies in the hospitals, water in the taps and order on the streets (as much as there usually is). Anyone who warns you otherwise is a catastrophist, a drama queen, a scaremonger, a Cassandra.
That’s what a seven-decade period of general peace and collective prosperity does for you. It makes you think it’s normal, rather than a hard-won, fragile rarity in history. It makes most people complacent, and turns a small but unfortunately influential number into the kind of adolescent romantics who think you can smash up everything in the house and stick two fingers up to Mummy and Daddy because, no matter what you do, they will always be there to make it right in the end. Mummy and Daddy won’t let anything too bad happen to us.
The idea that we’re protected, we’re exceptional, is not articulated or usually even conscious. But it’s there. That this is who we are. Disaster – mass, national disaster – happens to other people, in other places.
But there is no such rule. No such guarantee. Mummy and Daddy won’t always come to bail us out. And if you’ve ever lived in one of those other places, chances are you will have seen how quickly what you thought was an orderly society can disintegrate under pressure. If you’ve never known gunfire and mobs on the streets, or empty taps and empty shelves, or power that’s off more than it’s on, or morgues full of the victims of racial, political or tribal violence, you don’t have a clue how easily that can happen.
I experienced all these things when I was growing up in Kenya. Some were routine; the more severe, mercifully less so. Branded on my memory from an attempted coup d’état in 1982 is the sound of automatic rifle fire along the road; the crowds surging like waves; confusion and misinformation crackling from the radio; most of all, hearing the account of my late father, a doctor, of the aftermath of what I can best describe as a pogrom, unleashed by the breakdown of order, against the Asian people of Nairobi, his hospital full of the dead and grievously wounded people, many of them children no older than I was.
All the talk of “Blitz spirit” comes from people who have never known what it is to truly fear everything crashing down
Britain is not Kenya. It is, in the ordinary run of things, much better protected against such convulsions than a country such as Kenya. But do away with the ordinary run of things, and any place in the world can suffer as Kenya did then. You don’t have to look too far back at European history to see it, nor do you have to look away from home. The British people I know who most swiftly grasped and vividly understood the implications of present events as they began to unfold are Northern Irish. There’s a reason for that.
Democratic institutions, the rule of law, civic infrastructure, a culture of local and national governance in which corruption, while ever present, is exceptional rather than institutional: these things, flawed as they may be and ever improvable as they are, take generations, even centuries to build. But once they topple, they can topple at terrifying speed and with terrifying effect. Britain has forgotten what that’s like.
All the talk about the “Blitz spirit” comes from people who have never known what it is to truly fear everything crashing down around you. In liberal democracies enthusiasm for a revolution usually comes from people who have known nothing but the safety and freedom of the “system” – which is to say the imperfect protective structure – that they abhor. Talk to anyone who has experienced the glories of such upheaval and they are generally not quite so keen on it.
To be, politically speaking, a grownup is something to be sneered at these days. It means you’re lacking in imagination, in boldness of vision, in belief in a better country or a better world. That’s a view held invariably by people who would, without grownups running things, have been lucky to survive long enough to articulate it. Similarly, a contempt for expertise is inevitably expressed by those who, without experts contributing to society as they do, would be lucky to have a voice to speak with, let alone a platform on which to use it. Expertise, like democracy, is far from infallible; each, however, is always preferable to the alternative.
When the grownups fail, as they periodically do, and badly, what you need is better grownups. Awful things have happened, and do happen, in this country, chiefly as a result of bad policy and worse enactment. We don’t need to have homelessness, dependency on food banks or deprived areas ruled by criminals and bullies. We can afford to act against these evils, but we let them happen all the same. That shames us. Hand the keys and the controls over to eternal teenagers – populists of either stripe – and what you’ll get is a situation where that choice is gone.
We’re not special. If, in a deluded fit of national self-harm that ever more resembles the drift into war in 1914, we allow ourselves to wreck the complicated machinery that underpins our everyday lives without us ever having to think much about it, nobody will be coming to rescue us. Cassandra, as Cassandras are always ready to remind you, was right.
• David Bennun is the author of Tick Bite Fever, and of British as a Second Language