Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Why can't Britain be more like Belgium?
This article of mine appears in The First Post.
Question: which European country has a right-wing Prime Minister whose sister is a communist politician? Answer: Belgium. Who else?
Belgium is easily the quirkiest country in western Europe, if not the entire continent. For long periods in the past two years it has been without a government. It is plagued with linguistic divisions and has often appeared to be on the verge of breaking-up. And for decades it has been the butt of jokes, such as the hoary old challenge to 'name ten famous Belgians'.
Yet, for all of that, Belgium works - far better than Britain. This is ironic, given that Britain has strong historical ties to Belgium and came to the country's rescue when it was invaded by Germany in 1914.
Belgium has much in common with Britain: it's a densely-populated former imperial power with long-standing internal divisions and could easily provide a model for Britain if our political elite were not so insular, or ideologically blinkered, in their outlook.
The first step in making Britain more like Belgium would be to change the electoral system. In Britain, too much store is placed on political stability. In Belgium, where a form of proportional representation operates, governments come and go with far greater frequency than in Britain. But does the country actually suffer from this greater political instability? There is no evidence to suggest that it does. On the contrary, proportional representation means that more parties have a chance of winning seats - 11 different parties won seats in Belgium's 2007 general election - helping to increase public interest in politics.
Then there's foreign policy. Belgium, like Britain, is a founder member of Nato. But unlike Britain, it knows when to say no to Washington's military adventures - as it did at the time of the Iraq war in 2003.
Belgium's constructive attitude towards European co-operation also puts Britain to shame. While the British Thatcherite right sees the continent - and its more socially-orientated form of Rhineland mixed-economy capitalism - as the source of all evil, Belgium's conservatives take a more rounded, balanced outlook.
As for domestic policy decision-making, Belgium's approach has been more pragmatic and less ideological than Britain's. Public transport is a case in point. While Britain, in thrall to free market dogma, privatised its buses and trains in the 1980s and 90s, Belgium has maintained a publicly owned, fully co-ordinated and ultra-efficient public transport system. Travelling around the country is a constant delight and devoid of the stresses which afflict British commuters.
While Britain prides itself on its historical commitment to the freedom of the individual, in fact it's Belgium which feels a much freer and immeasurably more relaxed place. Smoking is still allowed in bars and cafes. Public places are refreshingly free of our incessant tannoy announcements, warning us that this is a no-smoking station or airport and that any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.
Belgium's success owes much to the delicate balancing of political and social forces. The country has never embraced neo-liberal economic dogma as enthusiastically as Britain, with the result that market forces do not rule every aspect of people's lives. Also, the strength of the Catholic Church has meant that traditional family values are still promoted. But the strength of liberal groups means that Belgium fully respects the rights of gay people - it was the second country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages.
All of which makes Belgians happy. An OECD study published earlier this year revealed Belgium to be the ninth happiest developed country in the world, with 76.3 per cent of the population expressing satisfaction with their lives. Britain could only manage fifteenth place. The same survey showed that only Turkey topped Belgium when it came to rising levels of life satisfaction in the period 2000-06; Britain came eleventh.
Belgium is an example of how a modern country can combine economic efficiency with social justice and how high living standards can go hand in hand with high levels of social cohesion.
It's time we stopped making smart jokes about famous Belgians and started to learn from our more efficient, less stressed-out and much happier European neighbour