Comment: Green and pleasant, but this land will always remain grumpy
Ever since Harold Macmillan told Britain "we've never had it so good", politicians have rightly been wary of good news.
Back then, it was the slow pace of recovery from the Second World War which brought howls of outrage against a prime minister trying his hardest to be upbeat.
The economic situation now is not especially rosy, either. So the Institute for Economics and Peace's surprising findings present a challenge for the ruling classes they would do well to ignore.
Its UK Peace Index concludes both crime and homicide have fallen significantly in the last ten years. Even the global financial crisis has not stopped the decline in violence. The evidence is clear enough: On this metric, if no others, Britain is turning into a nice place to live.
The problem is the British psyche is virtually incapable of accepting this to be the case. itself a side-effect of our not being very good talkers. Social anthropologists who have studied the English have cottoned on to this. We use grumbling as a means of social lubrication. That makes it very difficult for those down the pub to claim they are living happy, fulfilled, improving lives.
In the first decade of the 21st century, pollsters noticed some truly astonishing trends. Public fears about the state of the NHS had plummeted. What had been a serious issue in the 1990s had evaporated. Part of this was to do with politics. But mostly it was because the NHS was actually benefiting from the vast wadges of cash being thrown at it by New Labour. No-one ever mentioned this boom in support, though. Journalists and politicians alike instinctively turned a blind eye to a fixed problem. Grumbling about something that's going well is a mug's game.
The story when it comes to crime is even more extreme. Overall crime levels have dropped dramatically since 2000, by roughly one-third. Yet here the link between the realities on the ground and in voters' minds has been well and truly broken. As today's Peace Index shows, a quarter of Brits expect to be victims of crime sooner or later. But only four per cent actually will be.
This is not a healthy trend. A recent paper on the causes of loneliness identified 'stranger danger' as a key reason explaining why isolated people – the elderly, disabled etc – aren't getting enough human contact. In some of the country's most deprived areas, it is perhaps sensible to avoid striking up conversation with a stranger on the basis they might turn out to be a psychopathic maniac. Across much of the UK, though, such fears are ungrounded. They are part of the problem.
General worries about levels of anti-social behaviour have contributed to this. But it is the parade of brutal and shocking murders and muggings which appear in the media which continue to make us fear violence, even though the situation is steadily changing for the better. They certainly make it easier to grumble about.
The gulf between perception and reality is at its furthest when it comes to immigration. While our knee-jerk assumption is that things are getting worse, it doesn't stop us from concluding that things are far more grotty elsewhere.
Hence the righteous indignation of the Bulgarian and Romanian ambassadors, who yesterday explained in frosty terms exactly why their compatriots will not be rushing over to our shores once immigration restrictions are lifted next year. The media has overwhelmed itself in its fears about the potential influx. One BBC forecast suggested the number could be as high as 153,000. That is a 500% exaggeration over the embassies' best guesses.
The immigration gap reveals a paranoia about the need to defend what we have. The British are terrible at working out when everything is actually turning out OK, but it doesn't stop them moaning when the status quo is threatened.
It must be something about the way we are wired. We're incapable of accepting that our lives are better than they have been. It might make us psychologically unhealthy, diplomatically unpopular, and wastes our time, but it is part of who we are.
Politicians have known this for a long time. It explains why we haven't heard much of the Peace Index in parliament today. This is a shame, as life would be much more pleasant if were able to make ourselves feel better every time some good news arrived. Those in the public eye have learned from bitter experience, alas, that being positive rarely pays political dividends. Just something else to grumble about.
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