‘Culture’ is a creature whose DNA is quicksilver. Trying to define, let alone analyse it is like wrestling with shadows. One is forced into generalisation, simply because there is no other way to approach the collective thoughts, beliefs and behaviours of millions of people. Neither, in one’s pursuit of objectivity, is one able to escape one’s own cultural position; this is all the worse if one is scrutinising one’s native culture. No matter how one tries, it is impossible to be certain that one really has achieved the detachment needed for objectivity. There is no escape.
Some argue that there is no such thing as culture in the sense I mean it, just the behaviour of individuals and groups that coalesce and divide like shoals of fish. And yet it is hard not to feel that national culture or identity does exist: a deep, underlying commonality in the way people in a certain place tend to perceive and react to the world. But reaching an objective appraisal of it is almost impossible.
It should by now be clear that I am not referring to matters of art, literature and so on. To me, culture is a matter of mindset, which at varying levels gives rise to the ways in which people think and behave. The more conventional meaning refers to the means by which a particular mindset finds creative expression.
An irony of European integration has perhaps been that the differing cultures of that continent have become more of an issue rather than less. Being charitable, perhaps it is simply that we are more exposed to both the similarities and differences now than in the past; that creates the possibility to celebrate them – but it is also undoubtedly what has given rise to the problem of Brexit – and the various other nationalist resurgences being seen across the continent.
I am always bemused by the enduring British use of the word ‘international’- as in ‘St Pancras International’ and even ‘Aberdeen International’ (Airport). The use of the word suggests a glamorised perception of ‘abroad’ that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else – as though the mere use of the word can bestow cachet on a concrete bunker near Dyce. In a similar vein, a few days ago, I spotted a couple of neighbours whom I know to be hard Brexiteers cooing over some ‘continental’ biscuits in a local store – without any apparent awareness of the irony. (I thought such things went out in the Seventies…) Often, the very same people who despise the EU (and by extension, perhaps all continentals) are happy to visit (German-derived) Christmas markets, take their holidays in Spain, and splurge on the Champions’ League or Six Nations on TV without once sensing the contradictions in their behaviour.
My friend Manu lives in Lyon. He recently brought his eleven-year-old daughter to the UK with the express intention of exposing her to a new culture, one in whose language she is already pretty proficient. She engaged very well – though she did repeatedly complain of how cold she was on a mild British autumn day: that’s conditioning again. And Manu, despite being an Anglophile, was still stumped by the string-pull on British bathroom lights – something to which we British never give a second thought, yet the rest of Europe seems to think is deeply, neurotically bizarre. That is the level at which cultural conditioning and normalisation works: the small things that are so ingrained that it does not even occur to us that they might not be the same everywhere. Indeed, the very act of Manu’s visit struck me as a manifestation of such cultural differences: I wonder to how many mainstream British families it would even occur to undertake such a trip. Ours is a culture that is still fundamentally insular, inward-looking and overwhelmingly self-referential. Brexit has shown the limitations of such a position – and yet still we persist, almost as if we can’t help it.
The most telling aspects of a culture are those that it exhibits despite itself: the deep values, attitudes and behaviours that are so far below the radar that they escape our modern (supposed) self-knowingness. And when one starts to examine those things, what one finds can be far more disconcerting that a pretentiously-named box of biscuits.
All those ardent pro-European Brits may feel that they represent an outward-looking, cosmopolitan nation – but I suspect they are actually just another expression of precisely the opposite. The very fact that we are so insistent about such things at a conscious level might suggest we are less sure they are present at an unconscious one. For many on the modern continent, internationalism is simply a matter of day-to-day practicality, largely devoid of the romantic sentimentalism that underpins the British version. For them, crossing borders is often little more than a necessity. British ardour for other countries, on the other hand, is arguably more an expression of frustration at, or rejection of, the limitations of our own – a truth let slip a few days ago in a discussion I witnessed on pro-Remain social media, where there was agreement that pre-2016, few had given much thought at all to a European perspective. Even today, for many British, the continent is just the nearest place to go on holiday with decent weather. So be it – but the real problem is that most don’t seem to be aware of the inherent limitations of that view.
The deepest irony of the continental biscuits, of course, is that they are probably nothing like what one would really find on the continent – and that is before we even get to the point that there is no such culture as ‘continental’ on a land-mass made up of a kaleidoscope of some fifty different countries. And sadly, as with chocolate (and most things), the British re-interpretation is often a pale and insipid caricature. What those biscuits really betray is not knowingness, but ignorance.
So much for an outward-looking view: much of the current Europhilia is actually little more than an expression of normal human loss-aversion. If it were not, we would by now be experiencing more than polite marches and distribution of leaflets in its defence, even as the participants see the protests in Hong Kong on the TV nightly. What we are seeing is not really British “natural reserve”: it is the behaviour of people who have been systematically politically suppressed by their ruling classes, excluded from the real political process to the extent that we no longer believe we can make a difference, or that Change can come. In this country “Government” is something that is done to us, not by us. And it is so normal to us that we don’t even notice.
Who told us that we are “reserved”? Mostly those who made us that way: the same people who tell us that strong governments are preferable to consensual ones, and that a more inclusive electoral system really isn’t needed. The problem, once again, is that many seem to accept this as self-evident natural truth rather than a deliberate narrative which is open to challenge. “Representative democracy”, long-trumpeted as a good thing, is nothing more than a misnomer for a system that takes away any real say and places it in the hands of people who are all too often anything but representative. Which is just what they want.
If Brexit has revealed anything, it is the depth of ignorance still prevalent in this country about both the wider world and the workings of our own country. It is as though the reach of modern media has done little to dent the unconscious of the nation. We are in the throes of a general election campaign which owes its existence almost entirely to Brexit – and yet it has taken very little to deflect general public’s attention away from that issue and back to the traditional domestic battlegrounds of health, education and taxation. How convenient. It is also a means of addressing Brexit that, unlike the original vote, will deny millions of people in safe seats any meaningful influence on the outcome. How convenient.
That Brexit also seems to have exposed the chronic deficiencies in our social and political model seems still to be passing a substantial proportion of the population by. It is said that when the doors are opened, captive animals often cower at the back of their cages, preferring the captivity they know to the intimidating freedom they have been offered. That is the situation here: we know things are wrong, but collectively we seem to prefer the wrongness we know to the risk involved in making long-overdue reforms.
There is sufficient awareness of social models such as the Scandinavian one, for this country’s deficiencies not to be accepted as inevitable – and yet they widely are. The better standards of many continental countries are seen (and envied) by many, and yet they still believe the lie that “it can’t be done here”. The view is reinforced by the ingrained cultural belief that the patriotic British Way is still best – despite the manifold and growing evidence to the contrary. In the end, we prefer to grumble – and do nothing. Therein lies the hideous difficulty involved in genuinely changing a tired culture.
The electorate seems literally unable to make itself vote for a path to a more emancipated, egalitarian society in Britain. It clings to the handed-down view of a State which is a direct descendant of a domineering, imperialist power – which gives threatening names to agencies such as the Border FORCE, and which seems to believe that a resentful, punitive approach to the needs of its citizens is appropriate for all but a privileged few. It clings to a hierarchical view of society that is simply much less evident elsewhere – and thence to the notion that politics is about personal advantage rather than collective compromise.
The most terrible aspect of all is the prospect that our ruling institutions are still wedded to an authoritarian model whose main job is to keep “the masses” in their place while empowering certain influential individuals – and mouthing just sufficient platitudes about ‘Democracy’ to keep it so. Methinks they do protest too much: even today, when this system is perhaps broken beyond repair, it refuses to countenance an alternative.
Its success lies, as always, in portraying all the alternatives as worse: the depiction a consensus-seeking leader of the opposition as lily-livered, or a “Communist” as though that label is absolute damnation rather than merely an (inaccurate) description of an alternative political position.
This – rather than any particular set of values – is where the system is seriously imperilled: the point where people stop seeing the status quo as the relative position that it is, and starting thinking of it in terms of absolute truth is a serious threat to democracy. It then doesn’t take much – as seems already to be happening in the UK – for incumbent powers to convince the electorate that there really is no alternative.
This is why Jeremy Corbyn – for all his imperfections – has not made more headway. British culture simply can’t cope with an anti-hero like him, no matter how genuine he may be, and no matter how beneficial his policies might actually be for the health of the nation. He has refused to be made into the kind of leader the British think they want. His neutral position on Brexit, for example, seems entirely reasonable given the conflicts that he faces – and yet a mature “judgement of Solomon” type position is all too easily portrayed as weakness rather than maturity. Consensus-seeking depicted as a policy vacuum by the proponents of hard power. Yet ironically, consensus-seeking is precisely the way most continental politics work – and they are not in the mess that we are.
As I said at the start, cultures are complex and ill-defined things. Deliberate change is extremely difficult to effect – but from a long perspective, it is equally indisputable that cultures do change. Whether this is by evolution or revolution is another matter – but as with all organisms, those that are unable to adapt tend to die. At the point when societies and their cultures stop believing that another way is possible, stop being prepared even to speculate that the ‘farmer’ who feeds them might not after all be their best friend, then like Christmas turkeys, they are only headed for one destination.