What word would you use to capture the mood of the country as 2008 draws to a close? Crunch? Crisis? Corrupt? Sachsgate? Each of these is rather too specific. Perhaps the most telling verbal tag to attach to the spirit of Britain at the end of this year lies in the simple word “no”.
Even during this holiday period, the negative seems to be in the very air that we breathe. Nothing is quite as it was: the family, the community, the weather, the programmes on television. Bishops bleat. Football crowds boo their own teams. Critics are ever more disappointed by what they read, watch or listen to.
As a nation, we pride ourselves on the healthy scepticism with which we view the activities of those who have power over us. It is part of our bloody-minded individuality; we have irony in the blood. There is no fooling us.
In recent years, though, a kind of knee-jerk cynicism has settled upon us. It is noticeably worse today than it was even in the recent past, I was told by an Englishman in his thirties who now lives abroad; every time he returns home, he notices how addicted to the negative the British seem to have become.
The effect is not merely on the national mood. Far more seriously, the resistance to change and newness, that centuries-old distrust of enthusiasm, has a chilling effect on anyone – particularly anyone young – who wants to take a chance and do something different. In other words, the wet blanket of disapproval and pessimism which has become part of British life is very far from being an expression of individuality. It actually stifles it.
It is not easy to explain this mood of gloom, this assumption that anything new is intrinsically suspect. Our national expectation of disappointment has something to do with it. We have become so used to achieving far less than we once did and still feel we should – in international politics, in culture, in sport – that we have taken to despairing pre-emptively.
Perhaps there is a problem of laziness here. It is simply easier to be dismissive than it is to be enthusiastic. As any critic knows, trashing a work requires incomparably less effort, and pays a higher dividend for the reviewer in terms of perceived cool and wit, than praising it. So the great chorus of opinion-makers within the media help set a general tone of disappointed scepticism. Nothing new will work, goes the message; it is either some kind of con trick on the public, or an abandonment of perfectly good values that have worked in the past, or simply doomed to failure.
Creatively and intellectually, it is more comfortable, less exposing, to scan the day’s news in search of some new outrage against commonsense and decency than to capture a small ray of hope and to spread a bit of much-needed warmth. It is also less pleasing to readers, who have become used to gaining a sharp, refreshing tang of annoyance from the day’s press.
Blogs and message-boards – the “new media”, as its supporters like to describe it – add to the generalised disgruntlement with their own peculiar ingredients of gloom and bile. The internet may have liberated intelligent debate, opening the window on the stuffy clubrooms of the political and media establishments to let in a blast of fresh air, but it has also introduced a new note of nastiness and stupidity.
Thanks to the web’s anonymity and its ease of access, much of what is written online under the name of opinion is simply idle graffiti, tapped out by the bored and the bitter. Hazel Blears was on to something when, earlier in the year, she suggested that unless political blogs introduced “new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge”, they would do little more than fuel a general mood of pessimism and disengagement. Indeed, she could have addressed her words to all of those who inhabit the murky universe of the blogosphere.
One day, when we become less dazzled by the new technology, mindless abuse on the web will be taken no more seriously than a drunk shouting on a street corner but, for the moment, it makes its own miserable contribution to the national mood.
No doubt there will be developments during the coming year when the only sane reaction is a profound and hostile cynicism but perhaps, as the hard times shake everything up, leaving – let us hope – the beginnings of a new order, there will also be room for a new mood of optimism and tolerance. After all, it is with those people who are daring to do something different that our best hopes for the future reside.