One of the few beneficial effects of the Brexit experience has been the long-overdue social debate that it has sparked. People now seem willing to engage in meaningful discussion about the nature and state of this country, where previously there seemed to be relatively little interest. It has also been one of the more positive impacts of social media that such debate is now possible. In the past couple of years, I have had numerous productive discussions about the current position in the U.K. and what arguably needs to change within it. Resources have been shared, thinking has moved on.
In particular, people seem to have woken up to the fact the Britain is not some kind of nirvana, that “everywhere else is worse”, as was implicit in the everyday British mindset for so long. There is real discussion going on about other societal models, and how some other countries manage to find success in fields where this country repeatedly and persistently fails. There is at last some recognition of the insular smugness of that traditional British worldview, which has blinded so many for so long – and even an emergent acceptance that in our conservatism, we have turned into a rather unimaginative stodgy nation, afraid of change, who are very often being run rings around by the flair of more creative, innovative places and peoples elsewhere.
I think, though, that the British have yet to achieve a more objective understanding of their country’s natural and geographical situation that would allow them to address some of its enduring structural and attitudinal problems.
And too many still seem to think that higher standards “can’t be done here”. In a way, the absence of ambition which that betrays is the single greatest indictment of the place we have now reached.
But tomorrow, it looks as though the large part of the population that remains dead to such debate will vote to allow the old Establishment to put the cork back in the bottle, to ignore the debate, to re-assert the old ways, the old privileges, all the things that have caused the problem in the first place – perhaps for another generation. For too many, the old habits and mindset are so established, so innate, that their only reaction to challenge is to turn their back on it, and cling to what they know: a dull delusion of “Britishness”.
Quite how one can cut through to the fearful, the small-minded, the inward-looking, who it seems can only imagine the future as more of the same flawed past – while simultaneously showing a respect for their right to differ that they don’t often show in return – I really don’t know. As I said in my last post, real cultural change is extremely hard to bring about, and if they won’t engage in constructive debate, I am not sure how we can even begin.
Part of the problem is that they don’t want to: conservatism is by definition about continuity – about resisting change – and tends to be the preserve of those who feel they have little need to shape a different, more positive future – or little power to do so. In some countries, it defends a system that tends to work; in the case of the U.K. there is a stack of global comparators that suggest the opposite.
The resultant neglect is shocking; the stresses of Brexit have laid bare the extent to which the Establishment is prepared to neglect the nation that is notionally in its charge, in order to preserve its own primacy in the pecking-order. All it has really learned in a century is the need to make a few more quasi-democratic noises to keep the masses quiet. In reality, it still feels it can ignore a petition with over six million signatures, and even the constitutional conventions that it largely evolved, when it so chooses. Meanwhile, many of the rest continue to labour under a set of social assumptions and values with the same provenance, which are more widely seen as inappropriate for modern societies, but which are so embedded here as to be almost unconscious. Britain’s enduring preoccupation with status and social class, for example, only really shows how little progress there has been in removing its influence.
In reality, British conservatism seems to mean allowing only those changes that benefit existing privilege, thus perpetuating the problems which have led the country to its present moment of reckoning. The entire message is about a return to the past. Too often, even necessary change (not least the embracing of a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world) has been rejected because it threatened the status quo. This, I suspect, is the real reason underlying conservatives’ antipathy for the EU: in its ideals at least, it is just too egalitarian and future-orientated for them.
This country is paying the price for its complacency: a complacency started – and encouraged – by those historic elites, but in which the wider population is now complicit. We took too much on trust. We believed the assurances that everything was already for the best. We tolerated the neglect of necessary change in our national processes; in some cases we even voted to endorse it. We claimed powerlessness when things deteriorated.
If those of the conservative establishment were the sincere democrats and believers in “freedom” that they claim, they would long ago have enacted change. They could have started with the electoral system. They could have willingly examined alternative models and venues for our political institutions. They could have tackled private education and other wealth-perpetuated privilege. They could have devolved power to the regions. They would not have dragged their heels on environmental legislation to the point that the EU had to prosecute. And they could have accepted that their neo-liberal economic experiment has not worked for most of the population. Instead, they often enhanced it. So long as the system worked for them, they just didn’t care about the wider failings – and they still don’t. “Compassionate conservatism” has been revealed for the contradiction and lie that it is.
If the powers of conservatism are allowed to reassert themselves, this is precisely how they will carry on. None of the essential changes will happen. I’m not sure how it can be stopped; traditionally, it seems to take a revolution to topple embedded elites – but I think we need to be very careful what we wish for in that respect: such things rarely run according to plan. And I suppose that democracy needs to include the right of turkeys to vote for Christmas, though it should surely accommodate the rights of others not to be dragged down against their will, too.
There must be another way to ensure that the productive debate of the last three years does not just wither.