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

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

As someone who works in Belgium I agree with a lot of this, however I think the comparison needs to made more carefully, since Belgium is a much smaller country, with only 11M folks compared to the 60M in the UK. Also it's a compact (and flat!) country, which helps with the transport infrastructure.

Of course, Belgium shares the left-of-centre ethos of so much of Europe, never having had the "special relationship" with the US that has distorted so much British Govt thinking. And they never had to suffer Thatcher. Don't overlook, however, that Belgium has a remarkable number of very fine beers. Perhaps this is the key to their enviable happiness...

Robin Carmody said...

Good piece.

It is time we stopped fooling ourselves that "our" way does any meaningful good for the vast majority of British people. It doesn't. The overwhelming feeling I can sense around me is one of frustration and barely-suppressed anger ... "our" system does *not* make people happy.

Oh to live in a place where, as one of my friends said about Belgium, capitalism has only had the social effects it had had here by about 1958, but the dramatic and wonderful technological changes in that time have nonetheless still happened! The best of all worlds ...

David Lindsay said...

Didn't we once fight a war at least ostensibly to defend this, historically our principal ally and trading partner on the Continent, an entity not unlike our own United Kingdom, even headed by a monarch of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and with a social democracy based on Christian principles?

Yet now we sit by as certain people, including at least one party with SS roots on, of course, the Western Front all the way to the Channel ports, seek to carve her up into neoliberal statelets.

Robin Carmody said...

Sometimes I think the UK itself *deserves* to be broken up. At least the US protectorate that England would then become (I know you've disagreed with me on this in the past, David, but ...) would be honest about what it was, which it already is in a creeping, undeclared form.

Anonymous said...

When I started reading your piece, I made a bet with myself that you would mention:
- the Iraq war
- the free market
- the smoking ban

Because you seem to shoehorn a reference to at least one of those topics into everything you write. I was right on all counts. Those of your political hue have plenty of good arguments to make, and the virtues of Belgium are worth recording - just please freshen up, Neil.

Robin Carmody said...

The first two of those at least are important issues (though I can't share Neil's objections to the smoking ban). I can see what you mean, though. A fundamentally accurate set of points may get through better and convert more people if they are less repetitive ... more open.

Neil Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Clark said...

thanks for the comments.
Robin: "It is time we stopped fooling ourselves that "our" way does any meaningful good for the vast majority of British people. It doesn't."
I couldn't agree more.
yet our arrogant political elite still feel that its the other European countries that should be following us and not the other way round.

5.42pm anonymous- that's a bit unfair- I've written plenty of articles in which I haven't mentioned Iraq, smoking bans and
the free market. Just take a look back on this blog. I think all three are very topical in this piece. As Robin says, Belgium hasn't followed the US blindly, like the US, and the lack of a smoking ban undoubtedly helps to give Belgium a more laid-back feel than the UK. And the fact that Belgium hasn't followed neoliberal policies as much as Britain has is extremely important in not only explaining why its public transport system is so superior but why people are happier too.

Anonymous said...

You have forgot to mention the waffles!

neil craig said...

This is an article about a study comparing Ireland's economic growth with Belguim's. Ireland having gone the low tax free market route.

I find the differential in economic growth persuasive.
http://www.assetprotectioncorp.com/irishgrowth.html

Louis said...

When I went to Belgium I was shocked by how dirty and scruffy its citys were and even though Bruxelles is the capital of the EU know one could speak English, so I spoke in German to everyone. All that aside Belgium is at least de-centralised something the UK could benefit from.