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Britain must learn to decline gracefully

Politicians may be too nervous to address Britain's increasing irrelevance on the world stage, but they must

There's an eery sensation of time looping back 30 years. The lineup of news stories echoes those that framed my teenage world: one in five young people unemployed and the relentless flow of stories of individual lives strained to breaking point by contracting state support. Beneath the news agenda, one can catch the reverberations of that narrative of national decline that so gripped 1970s and early 1980s Britain.

We're not alone. Declinology is prompting a publishing boom in doom across Europe and the US. The latest is by the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo, who made a name for herself as an outspoken iconoclast with her book Dead Aid. Now she is offering chilly comfort in How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly and the Stark Choices Ahead. Her work sits alongside books such as Losing Control by Stephen King, chief economist of HSBC, The End of Influence (Stephen S Cohen and J Bradford DeLong) and the Last Days of Europe: Epitaph from an Old Continent (Walter Laqueur). And, if you fancy something even gloomier, there's Decline and Fall: Europe's Slow Motion Suicide (Bruce S Thornton).

If all that sounds grim enough, take a look at France, where declinology has become a national art. We have Jean-Pierre Chevènement's Is France Finished? and Eric Zemmour's French Melancholy. While in Germany, declinology has assumed hysterical proportions inThilo Sarrazin's bestselling Germany Does Away With Itself and Hans-Werner Sinn's Can Germany Be Saved?

The basic decline arguments are familiar. An ageing European population and high youth unemployment with faltering economic growth in the debt-laden west set against the huge economic growth rates of China, India and Brazil – the rising rest, as Moyo calls them. Within 40 years, the west will represent only 12% of the world's population and Europe a mere 6% compared with its size on the eve of the first world war, when Europe's population was slightly bigger than China's. The French declinologist (if I can coin the term) Dominique Moisi describes this with the phrase "the white man's loneliness".

Meanwhile, as last week's summit in Washington demonstrated, economic power is shifting inexorably towards China, set to exceed US GDP within the next 10 years. China is churning out highly skilled graduates while embarking on a massive buying spree of western assets. The last decade was characterised by "made in China", the next will be "bought by China". Hope and optimism for the future is no longer a western characteristic; the Pew Research Centrefound that 87% of Chinese, 50% of Brazilians and 45% of Indians think their country is going in the right direction. Meanwhile Britain scores 31%, the US a shade lower at 30% and the French a meagre 26%.

Declinology is marked by a three-way split. First, there are the breathless potboilers whose digested read runs thus: we are all doomed, time is running out, will we survive? In these tomes decisions are invariably "stark", "tough" and "hard". Given how many of these books have been bestsellers, there is a healthy public appetite for urgent miserabilism.

Second, there are the economists and foreign policy analysts who seem to make it a point of honour to be as calm and matter of fact about decline as the bestselling authors are panicky. For many in this category the big issue is whether Europe/Britain/the west's decline is only relative or absolute as well. Will we just lose power and influence in relation to the rising rest or will we become poorer too? Will our roads be riddled with potholes as riots break out over the last vestiges of the welfare state or will we play host to crowds of Chinese and Indian tourists on their trips round heritage Britain? Or, as seems likely, a dystopian combination of the two?

Third, neither of these lively debates gets much of an airing in politics, where national decline is a no-go area. It's part of politicians' job description to evoke a convincingly hopeful future; that's a steep challenge given that a considerable body of western public opinion believes our children's lives will be harder than before, and is surely part of the explanation for the disconnect with politics. It's particularly hard for Britain, still suffering from post-imperial withdrawal, where political leadership requires claiming a prominent role on the world stage.Nick Clegg's brave foray proposing a realistic national modesty during the election proved brief: irrelevance is a concept the British have yet come to terms with.

Challenging decline became the defining political role for both Thatcher and Blair; they both used the City and the armed forces to claim that Britain punched above its weight. New details keep seeping out of the ignominious fallout of that strategy; reports last week of the US military success in Sangin, Helmand, after they took over from the British are another blow to a military reputation damaged in southern Iraq.

But the really striking characteristic of declinology is how it is used to advance other agendas. It is a way of injecting urgency, grabbing attention for another cause. And it can get very nasty. For example, many analyses of Europe's decline put the continent's Muslim minorities centre stage, cast in the role of "enemy within", outbreeding "natives", bringing down standards of education and corroding cultural traditions. Declinology in Germany and France has become toxically entangled with Islamophobia.

Moyo's sights are set in a very different direction, but one that could also prove disturbing. Bundled into some sobering analysis of how the west has incurred huge debt to invest in housing rather than wealth creation, infrastructure and education, Moyo argues that the west, unlike China, has burdened itself with unsustainable welfare systems that divert investment away from strategic, long-term interests. One could see this morph into a handy coalition rationale – "we can't afford it" – for stripped-down welfare. But even more sinister is Moyo's analysis of how swiftly and effectively the authoritarian Chinese state can take big strategic decisions in comparison with western democracies crippled by the short termism of the election cycle, and tangled in public inquiries, consultations and parliamentary scrutiny. "I love democracy but it is not a prerequisite for economic growth," she comments.

This is the dangerous territory of managing decline – haunted by temptations of racism and authoritarianism. Rather like old age, some of the toughest challenges come when one is least well equipped to deal with them. Decline and democracy have never, yet, had an easy relationship. Much of democratic politics is premised on promising the electorate their dreams.

Britain is resuming, after a generation of illusions, one of the preoccupations of postwar politics: is there a way to decline gracefully? How does a political leader reconcile a country to modesty about its place in the world, making room for the new ambitions of other countries while shaping a future prosperity? Politicians may be reluctant to discuss this kind of thing, but no one else is.

the jingling geordie

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poet and raconteur