Not Much Glory.But It's Still a Land of Hope; as He Leaves Oxford for a News Job in Turkey, One of Our Leading Historians Gives His Verdict on Britain
Byline: NORMAN STONE
Historian Norman Stone is leaving British academia after 30 years to set up a Russian Institute in Turkey. Here, as he prepares for his new life in Ankara, he reflects on what is right and wrong with our country.
OF COURSE, if you live in Britain it is easy to see the bad sides, and we all grumble. This country specialises in minor infuriations.
In British shops, you hear amazingly often the line: `We're quite often asked for these but we don't stock them.' And it is a wonder how on earth ours was the first country to establish working, durable free-market economics.
I remember, six years ago, being asked to a conference in Prague. When asked for my opinion of Britain, all I could say was that since 1945 we had only been any good at pop music.
That is not true now. We are brilliant at democracy, business and industry, and all aspects of the media. But what distinguishes us more than anything is trust and decency.
But first, since I am not for nothing a Scot, let us start with the criticism. Over my lifetime - I was born in 1941 - we have made many mistakes, but the very worst was to wreck our city centres. Fortunately, the money ran out before my home city, Glasgow, could be destroyed, but others - Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield - suffered a dreadful fate.
We have the worst public architecture west of the old Iron Curtain and even Oxford, which would in a more enlightened country have been preserved as a picturesque university town, has made a mess of its centre.
How did we let it happen? It does not even make economic sense because experience shows that money goes to places that are good to live in.
But the wrecking of city centres goes with something else for which England - rather than Scotland - is becoming sadly well-known: a terrible lack of imagination on public policy. What, for instance, are we doing with National Lottery money and the Millennium Commission?
It would have made sense to re-make, say, Birmingham and tear down the horrors of the past 30 years. It might have made sense to take those splendid buildings in Greenwich - the Royal Naval College - and turn them into a great educational establishment for the whole world. But, no. The college is just left on the sidelines, no doubt to be part of some `heritage' project.
Why, you wonder, are we so desperately unimaginative about these things?
And the problem of city centres is made worse by the desperate mess that we make of cars.
Go to Germany or Holland and you will find people making a sensible attempt at controlling traffic.
But we are not good at dealing with European models. In the 19th century, it was standard for Prime Ministers to read German and to know about `Abroad'. Nowadays there are far too many of us for whom `Abroad' is the kebab van in the High Street.
In my lifetime, each and every attempt at making us better at languages has been a failure. We are, as one Dutch writer calls us, `a world province'. Just the same, the food has improved vastly since the old days of 1947, which I remember quite well.
Food apart, looking at the way we now run this country you are forced to the conclusion that the English are not very good at bureaucracy. …