NIALL FERGUSON: Six reasons to be cheerful about Britain’s future – no matter how gloomy you feel as the nation limps towards the ballot box again…

Back in 1979 — not long after the general election that first brought Margaret Thatcher to power — Ian Dury And The Blockheads released the chart-topping single Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3.

The song is an irresistibly uplifting list of nice (and naughty) things in British life, from ‘Health service glasses’ and ‘Gigolos and brasses’ to ‘Saying okey-dokey’ and ‘Coming out of chokey’.

Today, as the nation limps towards another encounter with the ballot box, it’s somehow harder to think of reasons to be cheerful than it was 45 years ago.

For Conservatives, it is difficult to see how this election will result in anything other than a Labour majority north of 150, and hundreds of former Tory MPs in search of gainful employment.

Indeed, it might be even worse than that for the Tories. One eye-popping poll I have seen puts Labour on 443 seats after July 4, the Tories on just 143 — in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, the difference was 419 to 165. Such a rout would imply a Labour majority of 236, the largest any government has enjoyed since 1935!

Rishi Sunak becoming the first British Asian and Hindu prime minister was a cause for celebration because  Britain has become a multiracial success story not as a result of ‘affirmative action’ but because we are a mostly colour-blind meritocracy

Despite the bleak political picture, London gives us reasons to be cheerful - not just as a financial centre but a cultural powerhouse

Despite the bleak political picture, London gives us reasons to be cheerful – not just as a financial centre but a cultural powerhouse

An even worse one from Electoral Calculus last week saw the Tories reduced to 68 MPs — and that was before the Prime Minister turned the D-Day anniversary into his own personal Dunkirk by leaving the commemorations early.

Voters on the Right are despondent, rightly appalled that their leaders somehow managed to fritter away the opportunities that the Brexit referendum seemed to present eight years ago. Some have turned to the new party, Reform UK; others have quietly concluded that Brexit was a blunder and the Lib Dems were right all along.

Voters on the Left, too, seem a lot less cheerful than they might be because they know in their hearts that Sir Keir Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet have no credible answers to Britain’s problems.

So it all feels more like Gruel Britannia than the Cool Britannia of Tony Blair after 1997. The public today has rock-bottom expectations, even lower than in the 1970s. Does anyone have the strength to write Reasons To Be Doleful, Part 30?

And yet I think this national gloom is much too pessimistic. Yes, I can see why a Labour victory is all but inevitable. This Government is exhausted after 14 years and five prime ministers.

The Tory party is demoralised, with many MPs and even some ministers throwing in the towel. Michael Gove, one of the most consequential political figures of recent years, has chosen not to defend his Surrey Heath seat, perhaps dreading a ‘Portillo moment’ akin to the public humiliation suffered in 1997 by former Tory minister Michael Portillo, the most high profile victim of Labour’s landslide.

Meanwhile, tactical voting by Labour and Lib Dem voters is on the rise; the Scottish National Party’s descent into the realm of political farce will deliver a tidy haul of seats to Labour north of the border; and the rise of Reform UK — now polling at 17 per cent nationally — will most likely deliver the coup de grace.

And, yes, I can see why a lot of the public disenchantment with the Tories has deep economic roots. Growth has been anaemic in the past five years, averaging around 0.2 per cent, compared with 2.8 per cent in the five years before Blair’s crushing victory in 1997.

Britain still has a core of military strength, thanks to the enduring quality of our officer corps and special forces

Britain still has a core of military strength, thanks to the enduring quality of our officer corps and special forces

Britain's melting pot is not perfect, writes Ferguson, but it's a great deal better than its counterparts in the US and Europe

Britain’s melting pot is not perfect, writes Ferguson, but it’s a great deal better than its counterparts in the US and Europe

As commentator William Atkinson pointed out on the Conservative Home website, public sector net debt today is two-and-a-half times what it was in May 1997: 99 per cent of GDP rather than 38 per cent.

The consumer price level has risen more than in the EU and the US. A larger share of the population has left the workforce on grounds of ill health. And on measures such as hours worked per employee and productivity, Britain looks like the sick man of the developed world, with economists tracing our stagnant productivity to an investment slump after 2016.

What is more, the UK labour market would have been even tighter — and inflation almost certainly higher — were it not for the staggering rise in immigration. Gross immigration exceeded 1.2 million in 2022, while net migration — after deducting the number of those who emigrated — was still an estimated 685,000 last year.

If eight years ago you had asked what the consequences of Brexit would be, few people would have replied: ‘Net migration will more than double.’ Many people believed that voting Leave would have precisely the opposite effect. However, I am not sure the economic and political situation would be massively different if we had opted to stay in the EU. It’s not as if Germany — traditionally the biggest and strongest of the European economies — is doing brilliantly.

And, contrary to conventional wisdom, the UK is not the weakest performer in the Group of Seven leading industrial countries. On the basis of per capita GDP, adjusted for inflation and differences in purchasing power, Britain has, in fact, done better (plus 4 per cent) than Germany (plus 3 per cent) and Canada (plus 1 per cent) since 2016, and only slightly worse than France (plus 6 per cent).

The real story is that both the UK and the EU have lagged behind the US (plus 15 per cent).

Unlike Germany, moreover, Britain at least has something to offer in the great Artificial Intelligence race that seems likely to drive economic growth in the 2020s and beyond.

DeepMind — in my view, the company that really shifted the AI paradigm — was originally a British company before it was sold to Google.

Its founders, the two AI pioneers I respect the most, are Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman — both born and raised in North London. Hassabis and Suleyman are the first reason to be more cheerful about Britain’s prospects. The former is the son of a Greek Cypriot father and a Chinese Singaporean mother. The latter’s father was a Syrian taxi driver, his mother an English nurse.

If they had been born in New York instead of London, their chances of getting to Harvard or Stanford would have been negligibly small. But Hassabis went to Cambridge; Suleyman got into Oxford.

This illustrates a second reason to be cheerful. True, British universities in general are not in a healthy state — indeed, many teeter on the brink of insolvency — but Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and the London School of Economics are still near the top of global rankings, competitive with the best U.S. universities.

Indeed, Oxford came top in the most recent Times Higher Education league table, with Cambridge fifth and Imperial eighth — although Imperial rose to second in another major world league table just last week. The continental universities are also-rans.

That matters because of the key role top universities still play in the scientific research from which so many medical and technological breakthroughs come. British independent schools are also among the world’s best (so Labour, idiotically, is going to slap VAT on school fees).

The third reason: London, unlike Berlin, remains one of the world’s top two cities, along with New York, not only for financial services but also for culture. And culture — both high and low — matters. Germany has many theatres, but no Royal Shakespeare Company. Germany has the football Bundesliga, but it’s a bore compared with the Premier League.

Reason Four: unlike in Germany, the party to the Right of the Tories does not have disturbing ultra-nationalist inclinations.

Reform UK is the party of true believers in Brexit. The Alternative fur Deutschland is something else entirely, with at least some elements in the party that are altogether too sympathetic to the bad old Germany of the 1930s.

Fifth, and crucially, Britain is making a bigger success of being a multiracial society than any other country in the world. People who live here take this for granted. They should not. Britain’s melting pot is not perfect, of course, but it’s a great deal better than its counterparts in the US and Europe.

I base this partly on observation. I spent much of the first quarter of this year in Paris.

The French capital is essentially two cities. The historic one that tourists visit is pretty much as white as it was 50 years ago. I lived in Montparnasse. I am not sure I’d have noticed much difference in the streets, parks and restaurants if a time machine had taken me back to 1974.

The Paris of immigrant Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians is a largely separate city in the banlieues — neglected concrete suburbs — far to the east.

Go to watch Paris Saint-German, the best football team in France, and only the team itself is multiracial. It is not too different if you cross the Atlantic to watch the Boston Red Sox play baseball or the New England Patriots playing American football. But go to watch Arsenal and you will be part of a multicultural crowd, with people of every skin colour wearing the Gunners’ red and white.

My observations are borne out by the facts. As John Burn-Murdoch, the Financial Times’ data expert, has pointed out, only a handful of northern English towns — Blackburn, Leicester and Bradford — could really be described as residentially segregated by race or ethnicity.

Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, New York, St Louis and Miami — indeed all the major U.S. cities except Las Vegas, Seattle and Portland — are all more segregated than London.

For Americans it was a transformative moment when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Today, the vice president, Kamala Harris, is also of mixed race, like Obama. Britain is streets ahead. Not only the prime minister but also the first ministers of Scotland and Wales are ‘people of colour’.

I count 12 non-white Conservative Cabinet ministers in recent years. People have their reasons to grumble about Rishi Sunak’s leadership. The colour of his skin is not one I ever hear mentioned. Because the reality is that Britain has become a multiracial success story not as a result of ‘affirmative action’ but because we are a mostly colour-blind meritocracy.

Sixth, in a dangerous world, Britain still has a core of military strength, thanks to the enduring quality of our officer corps and special forces. We have foolishly denuded our Forces in recent years but rapid rearmament is at least something we’re capable of — and something we’ll have to do in the years that lie ahead.

All these reasons to be cheerful are also reasons why I don’t think 2024 is 1997, in the sense that Tony Blair’s victory 27 years ago was the first of three, consigning the Tories to Opposition for 13 years. My guess is that the Starmer government will be much shorter-lived.

Why? It’s not just that Starmer himself is more Harold Wilson than Blair. Labour is also deeply divided between its middle-class ‘woke’ progressives and its working-class and Muslim social small-‘c’ conservatives.

In his Substack online publication Wrong Side Of History, political commentator Ed West highlighted this division over wokery when he pointed out that ‘all of the top ten constituencies where signatures came from to remove LGBT content from the [school] curriculum are Labour seats, and nine out of ten of the top ten opposed to removing LGBT content are also Labour’.

Which means that when Labour spokesmen promise to ‘modernise gender recognition processes’, to ‘appoint an international LGBT+ envoy’ and to pass a new Race Equality Act to tackle ‘structural racism’ they are unwittingly alienating many in their own political base.

Then there’s the fact that Rishi Sunak’s much criticised campaign is targeted at the politically crucial segment of the British electorate that is over 55. His plans to revive national service, to scrap low-quality university degree programmes and to unfreeze the personal income tax allowance for pensioners are all carefully targeted at the ‘grey’ vote.

That makes a lot of political sense when, as the Centre for Policy Studies recently pointed out, ’48 per cent (310) of UK constituencies had already reached the gerontocratic midpoint in 2020, with more than 50 per cent of the weighted vote share in each having gone grey’. In other words, half or more of the electorate is 55 or older in nearly half of all constituencies.

We older Britons vote. At the last election, turnout for the 65-plus age group was 77 per cent. For those aged 50-64 it was 72 per cent. The rate for the 35-49 age-group was 63 per cent; for 18-24 it was 54 per cent. It will be lower still for Keir Starmer’s planned 16 to 18-year-old voters. And the older people are, the more likely they are to vote Conservative.

I don’t say this can save the Tories from defeat on July 4. I do say that it is likely to limit the size of the Labour majority. And that, too, is probably a reason to be cheerful. Or at least not to be thoroughly depressed.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.