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riots. civil disturbance. financial crisis. Arab Spring Norway massacre.

Things can only get better.

  Britain is under attack from within by gangs of feral youth who are torching their own neighbourhoods.  America is being crushed by a debt mountain of its own making.   Spain and Italy are sinking beneath the waves; Greece is on fire; Norway recovering from mass murder. The Arab Spring has been drowned in Syrian blood. In Scotland, teenage mothers are smoking themselves to death; students are being advised to sell their kidneys; house prices are collapsing. Has there ever been a summer of woe like this one? Give us a break guys!

And yes, I know that it sounds simple-minded to be looking on the bright side when there’s so much misery around. Hasn’t the Prime Minister just make a bit of a fool of himself with his attempts to promote a happiness index? Along with his top adviser, Steve Hilton, who suggested that cloud-bursting technology could be used to make the weather better. No – no one can tell us to be happy, especially when some of us are never happier than when miserable.  However, we can – with an effort of will – take stock of our situation and realise that things aren’t half as bad as they seem. 

   The riots have been disturbing and frightening for many people, and three young men have died in tragic circumstances after being mown down by a car.  But let’s get that in perspective.  Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that there weren’t far more fatalities.  I’m not trying to diminish the tragic loss of life in Birmingham, but in the same week there were hundreds of people killed in road traffic accidents.  We criticise the police, rightly, for standing idly by.  But did we really want a bloodbath, plastic bullets, broken heads?  Some of those who are calling for a crack down by police should remember the appalling race riots that disfigured our cities in the 1980s.  I for one would rather live in a society where the police erred on the side of restraint than became like an army of occupation. 

 There are economic difficulties, certainly, but not nearly as bad as seemed likely when the world financial system collapsed in 2008.  Yes, the bankers got away Scot free and their debts have landed on the public purse, but at least we’ve avoided another Great Depression. Britain in particular has led a charmed life. Our debt to GDP ratio isn’t much better than Greece’s, but investors seem to regard the UK as a safe financial haven at the moment, which is a lot better than an IMF bailout. I’m as critical of this Coalition’s growth policies as anyone, but we have to give the politicians some credit for avoiding a sovereign debt crisis.

  Of course, we’re constantly told that the real economic crisis is the ageing population.The Department of Work and Pensions published statistics this week suggesting that 11 million of us will live to 100 and some children born today will live to 120.  How will we pay for a society where the over 65s outnumber the under 34s? “A golden sunset is giving way to a bleak dawn” lamented Lord McFall, the pensions Jeremiah. But if ever there has been a case of wilfully refusing to see the positive wood for the negative trees, this is it.   The fact that we are living longer is a huge achievement that should be celebrated without qualification. So we might have to work a bit longer or save more for our old age – it certainly beats pushing up the daisies, which is what solved the ageing crisis’ before. Longevity is a barometer of human well-being, and far more reliable than any cooked up by the government’s spin doctors. It means child mortality has been conquered; diseases like TB that ravaged past generations have gone and that contemporary scourges, like cancer and heart disease are being brought under control.

  But isn’t Scotland the world centre of cardiovascular mortality and Glasgow the capital city of coronary? Well, it is – but whisper it, heart disease rates are coming down quite rapidly in Scotland too. The smoking ban led to an extraordinary reduction in heart attacks and there are real signs that even Glasgow is choosing life. It’s just that we aren’t improving as fast as other comparable countries in Europe. . But as I can tell you from my own experience, we have some of the best heart surgeons and cardiac researchers in the world working here in Scotland, thanks to the much-maligned National Health Service.

  Scotland has many other social and health problems – from sectarianism to liver disease – mostly to do with our love of alcohol. But here’s the good news: we know that this can be tackled. Nordic countries like Norway and Finland have also had a troubled relationship with the bottle – something to do with the dark nights. But they’ve largely got it under control through health education and drink pricing, and we can do exactly the same. Truth be told, Scotland is one of the healthiest and wealthiest places in the world Somalia it ain’t.

  Ok but what of the rest of the planet? All this death and disaster from Norway to the bloody suppression of dissent in Syria… Well, the Norwegian massacre was an exceptional event, which only confirms that we are living in extraordinarily peaceful times in Europe. Mass immigration has not led to the rivers of blood that politicians like Enoch Powell foretold. Nor did 9/11 lead to a decade of terrorist atrocities by Muslim fanatics. The Norwegians responded to the assault by their lone Christian fanatic with dignity and good sense.

And while the news may be bad from Syria and from Libya, where the old dictators refuse to die, in Egypt yesterday Hosni Mubarak, was finally brought to book. The others, I’m sure, will follow.. The Arab Spring is as much about demographics as politics – the youthful populations of North African and Middle Eastern states refuse to bow to the gerontocratic rule of the old tyrants. President Assad of Syria may use tanks and heavy weapons against his own people, but he is only condemning himself in the eyes of history. The Arab Spring is the most important geopolitical breakthrough since the end of the Cold War.

And the other summer scares? No one is going to have to sell their kidneys to go to pay university fees, as daft Dr Rabbitt Roff, a medical sociologist from Dundee University, suggested. Did no one tell her that students don’t pay fees in Scotland?  A real reason to be cheerful, that.   And there is no question of an internal market in organs in our National Health Service, which would refuse to handle contract kidneys.

Finally: house prices. They are falling faster than in 2009, which should cause the majority of Scots to utter a resounding “Yes!”   At last young families have the prospect of actually owning a home. Falling house prices are a good thing.  Inflationary house prices are what caused the financial crisis in the first place.  So – look around: it could be that our relentless negativity is the real problem. Our search for for dark linings to the silver clouds.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


One thought on “Things can only get better.

  1. ""But they've [Nordic countries and alcohol] largely got it under control through health education and drink pricing, and we can do exactly the same.""And if Labour in Scotland had not been so bloody minded and supported the SNP's Bill to introduce minimum unit pricing of alcohol rather than indulging in petty political posturing then Scotland could have made a modest start on reducing alcohol intake via the pricing mechanism. That particular piece of petty political vandalism by Labour probably contributed mightily to their defeat in May this year.

    Posted by CWH | August 13, 2011, 10:47 pm

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