Monday, 3 September 2007

Cultural Conservatism as the Answer to Everything

I don't read that many newspapers, at least not in the last year when studying for the degree in Global History. But when a paper ends up in my house, it tends to be the Saturday Telegraph, owing to its (supposedly) superlative gardening section; I imagine the Telegraph readership has the highest proportion of large-garden owners of any newspaper in the Western world, so that follows.

I have found it useful to read, as it defines those viewpoints that I find difficult to agree with, which have contributed towards my alienation from my 'natural' party, the Tories. (Natural? because I am a property-owning, public-school attending, ex-City employee with absolutely everything to gain, personally, from the onward march of Right wing ideas). Nearly every week I find something distasteful. To be more exact, it is its presumption of possessing the right ideas, tested with a full historical consciousness of the values that mattered in the deep past, that irks so. The best recent example I can find was on Saturday 1st September, by John O'Sullivan, here.

Let me try to summarize the article; it contains several classics of the genre.

  • We are comparatively ignorant about 'our' history - the heroes and dates. Cites some polling evidence of crass ignorance
  • This has caused a current crisis over Britishness.
  • This crisis is a causal factor in several dreadful things, from the 7/7 bombings to the shooting of poor Rhys Jones
  • People used to be decent, quiet, and behave well. Cites a letter of a foreigner written in 1924 who claims that the British are responsible for all tolerance, dignity and respect for the individual
  • This all started to be destroyed in the 1960's. Crime rose, because 'cultural liberalism eroded authority'
  • This coincided with Britain moving closer to Europe than the Commonwealth, and we then lost our knowledge of history. Our 'brand' weakened, and immigrants came here wanting to remain the way they were rather than adopt British decency
  • Labour hates real patriotism, and the Tories are afraid of being seen as nasty, so no-one does anything about this.
  • The answer is to stress our imperial history, which "unites the British with their former imperial subjects". Goodwill should abound, because of the lovely things some Indians did for us, like die in our regiments. And they should remember how we ended slavery so selflessly.

Where does one start with this? Firstly, there is that constant of disaffected Right-wing thinking - the 'aren't things awful' bit. List a few bad events like 7/7 and the death of Rhys Jones, even the vague "spread of cultural customs incompatible with the liberalism of British life", and you have the necessary starting point to all analysis, the Problem to be Solved. Never mind that absolutely every era could similarly list, in disregard of any context, its own terrible social ills as proof of its own time being uniquely dreadful. Go backwards: Irish terrorism, economic recession and uncompetitiveness, massive unemployment, poll-tax rioting, more unemployment, rotting hospitals and schools, football and nationalist hooliganism, you can pick any decade and find it to have been dreadful if chosen without decent perspective.

Secondly, and at the core of such arguments, Mr O'Sullivan sees a straightforward cultural causation making things happen. People - whole nations - can be described as like something - they are decent or rude, law-abiding or disrespectful, and all 45-60million British can be casually summarized in a few words, and with a flimsy letter as 'proof'. The past had moral heroes; incorruptible policemen, decency oozing from the walls, scouts absolutely everywhere, no crime or corruption. There is no real evidence offered for this, but to the Tory mind it is incontrovertible fact.

Thirdly, this is brought down by government decisions, or at least its demise is wilfully allowed to occur. So, somehow, if governments had taught the right history, backed the right legal cases, passed the right laws, we would all be much more respectful of the neighbourhood bobby, Rhys Jones would have been putting up a tent and his assailant collecting wood for a fire.

Finally, and most ludicrously, there is the prescription for the article - more teaching of 'our' Imperial heritage. We belong as the father-figure for a bunch of variously-conquered Peoples from Asia and Africa, and if we teach the bullet-points of Imperial history, with a sufficiently fuzzy light around some of the family's old squabbles (Amritsa? the profits of slaving? hmmm), they will arrive here, busting to get hold of the proven-superior British basket of values, and not instead spend their time plotting how to stab or shoot us.

What do I think here? I am not a columnist, and so think things are more complicated than those simple-minded folk tend to be. There is not a lever to pull for any government that would determine whether the people it rule will be 'decent' or not. The question of how people behave is hugely determined by their context. There is nothing wrong with cultural liberalism - it is not the straw man of conservative nightmares that allows anything to go unchecked. The changes in people's attitudes since, say, 100 years ago are often the outcome of welcome social trends, like the rise of women's rights, or more flexible working lives. The world might have appeared more decent 80 years ago, but probably not to a close social commentator willing to dive into the slums of pre-war Britain. Instead, what the Tory memory is probably finding is a preference for a period when the ugliness was brushed under someone else's carpet.

I would also like to point out how much more patriotic the Americans are than us, and how their murder rate tends to be 4-5 times higher than ours. In fact, just look here and tell me whether you can find any links between patriotism and the murder rate. Any social scientist worth his salt would look at you quizzically, or more likely wonder if you were joking.

In my course of Global History, we mostly found that cultural descriptions were a lousy way of explaining why some nations did better than others. Once you understand the significance of geographical endowments, traditions of law, trade relationships, and sheer luck, the residual, culture, is often the black box for the historian who is too lazy to look closer. It is also a nasty, pessimistic way of dooming whole classes to their fate. Once there would have been similar writers explaining why the Irish, say, are doomed to be second-rate economically, why the Asians will never be inventive, why you can't trust the Arabs, and so forth, all the while holding as axiomatic that the British way is the only one. It is clear this is nonsense now - read this article of O'Sullivan's in another 50 years and one will be amazed it was ever written.

1 comment:

Jackart said...

Yup, dickheads in the Tory party. But please read the drivel that spews forth from Polly Toynbee and tell me Theodore Darymple is worse...