Monday, 19 December 2016

Another British value

I've got three specific reasons to think that Sajid Javid's plan to make public office holders swear an oath to "British values" is nothing more than the impressively noisy clang an ambitious politician can make by hitting hollow rhetoric hard enough:
  1. "Values": Most people are broadly in favour of things like democracy, equality and freedom of speech, so long as they're so broadly defined as to be meaningless. But few people believe in absolute free speech and there are plenty of meaningful differences between people about where the limits of free speech lie (hate speech against different groups, blasphemy, how broadly or narrowly defamation laws should be drawn, etc). The same goes for equality (how much economic equality do we want to build into our society and how much do we want to leave to unregulated competition and what about affirmative action versus non-intervention when it comes to gender and disability and racial discrimination?) and democracy (does a referendum result trump parliamentary democracy, if we are now taking decisions of national importance by referendum, should we be institutionalising some form of direct democracy, or if we're still a parliamentary democracy, wouldn't proportional representation be more democratic than the system we have, how exactly is out bloated, unelected House of Lords compatible with democracy, etc?).
  2. "British": there are plenty of other countries where democracy, equality and freedom of speech are held in high esteem. It's even possible that some in some other countries, people might enjoy more of these things than we do in the UK* (I know it's hard to believe that we don't self-evidently live in the most democratic, equal and free-speaking country in the entire world, but even this extraordinarily counter-intuitive proposition might actually turn out to be true).
  3. "Oath": When your job depends on paying lip-service to a set of values, it's not that hard to lie about your true beliefs. I once worked for a large company that had an - arguably vague and platitudinous, but well-meaning - equality and anti-discrimination policy. Everybody was supposed to do a bit of computer-based training to demonstrate diversity awareness and everybody duly passed the module. Thanks to the WikiLeaks dump of the British National Party's membership list, I know for a fact that one of the people who achieved a pass in diversity awareness was actually a member of the aforementioned fascist organisation. Belonging to an extremist party which actively loathed the very ideas of  diversity and equality was not, it seemed, any barrier to completing an official anti-bigotry module to a perfectly acceptable standard.
So mostly it's just nonsense. You could, I suppose, point to some values which are, if not exclusively British (sorry, rest of the UK), at least things that the British are supposed to have more of than most other people. For me, pragmatism is the first one which springs to mind. Continentals are supposed to have have universal, all-inclusive, overarching schemes, from the philosophical (Hegel's concept of a Weltgeist or "world spirit", or Nietzsche's "will to power"), to the legal, (the completionist legal codes of Justinian and Napoleon), to the pseudo-scientific (Freud's make-it-up-as-you-go-along universal explanation of all human psychology as the working out of an incestuous sexual psychodrama), to the administrative (France's Grand Projects, a term identified with Fran├žois Mitterrand, but continuing a tradition that goes back to Versailles and Haussmann's remodelling of Paris).

The British, by contrast are supposed to muddle through, to make do and mend. Supposedly, examples abound. The piecemeal evolution of the Common Law, the almost accidental adoption and evolution of an established church founded on no higher principle than the desire of one monarch to remarry and sire a male heir, the unplanned, incrementally developed map of London, as opposed to the visionary remaking of Paris, the bit by bit accretion of our not-written-down-in-any-one-place constitution, the unplanned compromises of the UK's constitutional monarchy (OK, the UK shares this feature/bug this with a few other countries, but Britain, in particular, has spent an awful long time perfecting the art of the royal fudge  - which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like an item from Prince Charles's Duchy Originals range of high-class comestibles).

It is, in short, the British way is to try things and see whether they work in the real world. If so, the Brits go with it, without worrying too deeply about whether they fit into some grandiose, all-encompassing ideology, vision or scheme. If not, we stop doing it and try something else. That's not quite such a universal, impressive-sounding value to claim as democracy, equality and free speech, but being pragmatic is still a reasonably good thing to be known for and you could, arguably, claim that the Brits have more of a right to lay claim to the virtue of pragmatism than many other countries.

But if we can make a slightly more convincing case for pragmatism as a specifically British sort of value, our presumably pro-British values government isn't displaying very much of that quality (I'm making the assumption that Sajid wasn't going completely off-piste with his suggestion, which seems in tune with the generally nationalist tone of the rhetoric coming from the May administration).

A lot of the the other stuff coming out of government at the moment sounds less like a pragmatic plan, based on a sober assessment of the situation, than a grandiose fantasy based on pure wish-fulfilling delusion, undiluted by reality. These, from the parodic Twitter hashtag #brexitopportunity (h/t Tom Pride), are satire, but the attitude sounds dangerously close to the sort of delusional mind-dumps that have been plopping out of the Department for Exiting the European Union's bunker lately:
"Tesco sell more to me than they buy from me, so if they want my custom they'll accept MY terms or they'll be sorry!"

"Stopped sending my kids to school. I'm going to negotiate with individual teachers to make sure I get the very best deal"

"I’ve sacked the police. I’m going to negotiate with individual criminals to leave me alone. They want a small fee."

"Decided to bin Apple Music and negotiate individual music deals with all my favourite artists"
Maybe the very people who are keenest to wrap themselves in the flag are the same ones who paradoxically display that most un-British failing, a massive pragmatism deficit.

Or maybe, Britain just isn't the pragmatic place of our flattering self-image - after all, as I'm well aware, my examples of pragmatism are all anecdotal, unquantifiable and generally not particularly rigorous. Maybe counter-examples exist.

Alternatively, maybe Britain used to be a pragmatic place but it isn't any more. After all, the idea of a national character isn't a fixed thing. Before 1997, Britons were thought to display a stiff upper lip and be emotionally reserved. Then Princess Diana died and massive outpourings of public emotion were, apparently, the British way.

Go back far enough, though, and it turns out the national stereotype of emotional reserve, which supposedly died in 1997, was once itself a new and unusual facet of the national character. At an earlier point, in the 18th Century, when the cultivation of sensibility was seen as a high-status social skill, bewigged and powdered gentlefolk competed with one another to see who could display the most effusive outbursts of tearful emotion on any suitably affecting occasion (the lower orders were, then as now, expected to just suck it up, being thought too brutish and insensible to feeling to emote to the same refined degree as their betters).

I'm guessing that the transition from emotionality being celebrated to the cult of the British stiff upper lip started some time around 1811, when Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility made a heroine of the sensible, pragmatic, emotionally restrained Elinor Dashwood and gently mocked the more emotionally self-indulgent sensibilities of her sensitive sister, Marianne.

Or maybe pragmatism, or emotionalism, or a love of democracy, or free speech, or equality are all complicated, changeable things, too nuanced to be reduced to the cretinous oversimplification of a jingoistic oath, asserting exclusive national ownership of particular human values?

*I'm assuming that Sajid intended to include the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in his Great British Values Loyalty Oath Crusade, but "UK values" presumably just didn't trip of the tongue quite as readily as "British values." I'm convinced that Her Majesty's Government totally sees Northern Ireland as an integral, valued, part of the United Kingdom family and definitely not some sort of poor relation, or afterthought. Honest.