Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of the earlier perspective.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

(previously posted on my blog Teaching Personally)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Jerusalem?

There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzatura came from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.

England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.

Titus Salt’s enormous mill.

It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.

There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.

But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.

Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.

Above and below: The mannered streets of Saltaire.

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We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.

Above: KWVR steam train leaving Haworth. Below: the attractive and steep main street in Haworth.

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Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…

The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.

That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.

But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.

The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.

Above: Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge Below: The attractive streets of the town centre.

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A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.

Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?

Opinion & Thought, Travel

The state of the nation – no – region.

Regionalism is a concept that is perhaps overlooked in much of England. While I can think of several parts of the country where people might immediately taker great exception to that claim, I still feel that as whole, English culture is not one that celebrates its regional diversity – and this has been all the more so as our capital city has grown in dominance over the rest of the country. I suspect that once again, the other nations of the British Isles perhaps have somewhat different perspectives on this, as my sense is they still root themselves in much more local identities even within their own national ones.

What makes a regional identity is perhaps open for debate. Matters like accent and food are inevitably strong – but I would add simple on-the-ground knowledge of one’s patch is important too. Having a sense of place about where one lives is important for feeling rooted. Much as I have an internationalist outlook, having a sense of regional identity is something I value, and I would like to see steps taken to strengthen England’s regionalism.

With this in mind, we took advantage of last week’s good weather to make a trip that I had been planning for some time: a circular tour of our own region of East Anglia. Despite having lived in the region for 33 years, there are still a few parts I haven’t visited – and there were a number of others where my last visit was quite some time ago. What’s more, the rail enthusiast in me wanted to complete my coverage of the region’s routes, and now seemed like a good time as major change is afoot on the region’s rail network in the next couple of years. A valedictory to some of the old order and an inspection of the current state of play of the region’s rail infrastructure seemed like a good excuse to take advantage of the Greater Anglia Day Ranger ticket, which gives unlimited travel for a day within the region for a very reasonable £24, or £18 with a railcard.

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We started with a drive to Ipswich (GA cannily excludes the Essex commuter routes from the ticket) and thanks to the usual unpredictable state of the A12, we missed our planned train. Before the following hour’s train, we had time, therefore, to inspect the excellent job that has been made of the renovated facilities at Ipswich station, which presents a clean and modern impression to the traveller. It is good to see it being remembered that rail stations are important gateways to their communities, and being treated to some of the improvements we regularly see on the continent. The fact that GA is owned by Dutch Railways probably has something to do with it; I am a fan of what they have done during their tenure.

Inter-city and regional trains at Ipswich’s well-maintained station. Both are scheduled for replacement soon with new Swiss-built trains.

I had artfully concocted an itinerary that would both cover the lines I wanted, and take in pretty much the whole range of East Anglian landscapes – for while this region is entirely flat, it does not want for variety. It is by no means all wheat prairies, as people seem to think.

Our first train took us via Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket to Cambridge. This a very pleasant 80-minute crossing of the gentle Suffolk countryside, seen at a green time of year. The short stretch through Newmarket, past the racing studs, to Cambridge was new to me.

Cambridge station is another that has benefitted from much investment, and now presents a crisp gateway to the city. Since my last rail visit perhaps 25 years ago, the whole of the station forecourt has been redeveloped with multiple office blocks and apartments. It has been a controversial scheme, but I found it impressive, having created a very pleasant public square in front of the station, as often seen on the continent. Morning refreshments were duly taken.

Above and below: modern developments on old railway lands adjacent to Cambridge station. The ‘sculpture’ is actually the central pivot from the old railway turntable, unearthed during redevelopment.

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Our next train required an add-on to the day ticket, for the unknown line to King’s Lynn. This journey is around an hour long, and heads out across the depths of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The main landmark is Ely Cathedral, before the line singles as it heads for the backwoods. The Fens can be bleak, but I find them an interesting landscape, with a large vistas and huge skies that are not common in Britain. There are few places in Britain where the trains actually rise to pass over the local rivers – the whole area was marshland, some below sea level, drained by Dutch engineers from the 15th Century, and now some of the nation’s most productive farmland. But dead flat.

King’s Lynn is a place we did not previously know. It has an attractive, small railway station that has been well maintained, though it gives onto what at first sight looks an unappealing town. Regrettably, modern retail developments have not exactly enhanced the impression – but if one perseveres, one can find a well-preserved Medieval town in its midst. There are some impressive buildings along its Ouse waterfront, dating from the time when it was a prosperous port. We had a little over an hour, which was enough to gain an impression and grab some lunch.

King’s Lynn’s well-preserved station. Perhaps on account of royal visits on the way to Sandringham?
Medieval buildings in King’s Lynn. I suspect that were this town nearer to London, it would be very sought-after.
King’s Lynn waterfront, where the Great Ouse exits to The Wash.
The attractive Custom House.

We had to retrace our steps to Ely, where a quick change gave us a train over the Breckland Line to Norwich. My last traverse here was in 1987, and indeed was my first entry after University into the region that has since been my home. The Fens give way quite abruptly to the sandy heathland of Thetford Forest, a quite extensive area of uncultivated space and forestry plantations – a place of unexpected wildness, deer and dramatic sunlight. It is very appealing.

More quiet countryside follows, and then arrival in Norwich, along the valley of the Yare, and under the viaduct by which the main line from London soars in (well, by East Anglian standards) from the south. As expected, the railway sidings outside Norwich’s impressive station are now full of the new Swiss unit trains with which GA is replacing every train on its network over the coming two years.

I had been hoping that our train to Lowestoft would be formed from what is known locally as the Short Set – a few old coaches topped and tailed by two class 37 locomotives, some of the oldest remaining in service, and due to stand down in the coming months. The set was standing with engines running adjacent to the platforms – but it was not to be, as another unit set rolled into sight. The train to Lowestoft was packed, it being late afternoon. The journey is scenic in a different way, as it passes many of the southern Broads, former peat workings now flooded and full of attractive leisure boat activity. The East Norfolk countryside can be surprisingly remote, and shafts of sunlight lit it dramatically as we chuntered slowly past windmills and over the swing bridges that still characterise the route. The signalling is still mechanical, though its colour-light replacements are now installed, awaiting commissioning.

The ‘short set’ in its siding at Norwich station – where it stayed. These class 37 locomotives have been around since the early 1960’s.
Above: the most easterly bit or railway line in Britain at Lowestoft station. Below: signal set for the route home. All the old semaphore signals will disappear shortly too…

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Lowestoft is the most easterly point on the British rail network, indeed the most easterly town in the country. It still has some fishing activity, but otherwise looks to be struggling. But its station is clearly looked after by the local community rail partnership. Our final train was another bucolic 90 minutes via the East Suffolk line back to Ipswich. This single-track route nearly closed some years ago, but was saved by innovative radio signalling which allowed cost-savings to be made. It is a delightful ride though quiet, deep countryside and past the boatyards at Woodbridge, before it joins the line from Felixstowe – also single track – on the outskirts of Ipswich. I find it unbelievable that this is still the state of the route along which a major part of the nation’s imports flows from the deep-sea container port there – though enhancements are in hand.

We landed back at Ipswich some nine hours and 220 miles after we left. An excellent way to re-acquaint with the less visited parts of our home region. One gets a sense of integration – of how the various parts relate to the whole, and without the hassle of driving. It’s a pity that modern, sealed trains don’t easily allow photography on the move, but it was good to see all of the trains punctual, clean and well patronised, and the stations for the most part looking well kept. Something every region needs as part of a decent sense of self.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Carpe Diem

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A brief internet discussion with an Italian on social media a few days ago produced the following observation: “I think the British are just too afraid to go outside their comfort zone.” Well yes. But there is a back-story here: being on an island makes it harder for us to go outside our national comfort zone than for those on the continent (although southern Italians might disagree…) Even a committed European like me could only find the time and money to travel abroad a couple of times a year. Contrast that with my Swiss friend’s son – who went ‘abroad’ every day – to school. Even though that was only a matter of a few kilometres’ journey. It is so much easier to become internationalised when your geographical situation facilitates it.

And yet there more in that Italian guy’s comment than perhaps he knew. It has only ever been in the U.K. that I have heard people say such-and-such “is not for the likes of me”. I heard perfectly able students say it when I tried to encourage them to aim for the top universities. I heard a woman in my town say it the other day when I tried to encourage her to get involved with local decision-making.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that a whole continent is uniform – and uniformly different from Britain – but it is nonetheless anecdotally true, as I have observed before, that people ‘over there’ seem less constrained by barriers not only of geography – but also in their own minds. It is one of the things I find attractive about continental culture: compared with Britain, anything – well, at least much more  – seems possible.

I think the reasons for this do come back to our sociopolitical situation. Everything about Britain is still predicated on competitive advantage. The aim in life seems to be to “get ahead” – but of what? The system? One’s fellow citizens? The purpose of ‘success’ in Britain seems to be to buy exclusivity – and I can only conclude that this is a hangover of a social system where rank was (still is?)  everything.

Another social media conversation a few days ago was quite enlivening – and then I checked the profile of my interlocutor. It turned out (since verified) that I had been talking, simply as one human to another, to the CEO of BMW. My perception in Britain is that the elite rarely talk to anyone except each other – and certainly not with the hoi polloi via unassuming Facebook threads.

It would of course be wrong to suggest that everyone is equal on the continent. They have their elites too – but experience suggests that while ambition in those countries may bring an enviable way of life,  it does not – at least to the same extent – bring snobbery. Over the years, I have met a fair number of influential continentals – from MEPs to the (Dutch) President of the UCI (International Cycling Federation ). I have observed and heard about the behaviour of others, from celebrated Swiss art dealers to executives in multinational companies.  Almost without exception, they seemed to lack the superiority complex of their British counterparts. (The principal exception was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish President of the IOC, who seemed to think he was the Emperor of the World; those others whose view was closer to the British seemed to come from countries which shared many of our social problems and attitudes).

Even in the European Parliament, it was very noticeable that it was the British (Conservative) MEPs who had the airs and graces; the rest, even in their own political grouping, seemed much more down-to-earth. I have also heard about the low esteem in which residual elites are held in those countries – they are figures for fun or pity, and they certainly do not possess the power to intimidate that they do in Britain.

I spy an irony here, in that those nations which shout loudest about ‘anything being possible’ – The USA and the UK – are actually those with some of the lowest social mobility. It seems that we have to keep shouting about it, because we know that it really isn’t true. When ‘opportunity’ is so much the monopoly of a few, the mentality amongst the rest, that much of life’s bounty really isn’t “for the likes of me”, seems inevitable. And that includes the ability to travel, to discover that it isn’t the same everywhere.

It is in those countries which are more equal to begin with, that perceived Opportunity really does present itself to more people. And what is more, the consequences and objectives of that opening seem different too. While the aspiration for a comfortable life is probably universal, the attaching of this to exclusivity seems not to be. Wealth and seniority do not automatically make one a superior person, simply a wealthier or more senior one. It is the conflation of wealth, elitism and power that have put Britain (and the US) in the positions in which they now find themselves.

In a sense, this blog Sprezzatura rails against this: beneath an apparently superficial preoccupation with the good things in life lies a more profound belief that they should not be the preserve of an elite, but be accessible to all who want them. That good life does not need to come – as many in Britain’s elite seem to think – at the expense of others. And in any case, the ‘good life’ is not only about material wealth or privilege: many of those good things are actually found in simplicity and attitude, rather than large bank balances and powerful connections.

What prevents more people from enjoying them is the conflation of good living with privilege – of things that are “not for the likes of me”. It is a barrier that seems to be at least much less strong in those nations that are not so persistently hierarchical in their mindset.

The antidote to this is indeed Carpe Diem. Seize The Day, no matter who you are – and make the most of it. And on this day of all – which was to have been Brexit day – I feel it essential to acknowledge the role played in our current reprieve by Gina Miller, without whose legal challenge we would now be having Brexit imposed on us by the most authoritarian, elitist government in recent British history. Even Parliament would not have had a look-in, had it not been for her.

It clearly took someone with wealth and connections like Miller to activate the necessary procedures to bring the legal challenge to May’s dictatorial instincts – but the striking thing about this woman is that she uses her wealth not just to bolster her own position, but for what she believes is the common good. She seized a day without which today would be our last in the EU. I hope she is eventually sainted for it.

While she is a British citizen, it is of course noticeable that she takes at least some of her cultural leads from her past, elsewhere in the world. We British have a lot still to learn.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why should only some have prizes?

Mrs May today says she “shares British people’s frustration” that Brexit has not (yet) been completed. In doing so she illustrates perfectly the endemic problem with British politics that got us into this fix in the first place: she is quite at liberty utterly to disregard the opinions of the at-least-half of the population that disagrees with her. We simply don’t exist, let alone figure in her reckoning. She can claim she speaks for the nation when she clearly does not. Our fate, as a beaten (supposed) minority, need be of no interest to her.

This is the result of a system that is based on disagreement and confrontation rather than consensus-seeking. It is a system based on beating your opponents and then ignoring them. Both major parties are as bad as each other when the chips are down and they win power. This is no way to run a pluralistic modern nation.

This is the system that allows the Conservative Party to describe itself as “the natural party of government”. The fault in that is not the obvious one – but the implication that governing a country needs to be a zero-sum choice in the first place. It is also the system that then allows this party – true to its name – to resist modernising the nation and preserving the privileged classes upon which it has always heavily drawn.

This is why we urgently need electoral reform. While there is no perfect system, and it is true that most of the alternatives are both more complex and less certain, that actually reflects the realities of life, which is no longer as straightforwardly feudal-tribal as our antiquated system presupposes. The implications are far reaching: not only does consensual politics send an entirely different message to the populace, one of inclusiveness rather than monopoly, but I suggest that it eventually effects the very way in which people think about both politics and society more widely.

This nation is handicapped by a confrontational national model that goes far beyond politics – the mentality of winner takes all. It has done immense damage to the country over the decades, not least because of the sense of disenfranchisement and outrage that it fosters, and the frequent reversals of national policy that it causes. It takes a regressive view of life that says only some are entitled to opportunities and rewards – ironically quite the opposite of both right-wing views on ‘opportunity’. and the left-wing view of inclusiveness.

When it comes to Brexit, the argument is not symmetrical: within the EU, nobody is forced to acknowledge that organisation: people are free utterly to ignore it if they so choose. But outside the EU, the rights of pro-Europeans to exercise their wishes and loyalties will be prevented: another case of unnecessary zero-sum politics.

The view that life needs to be about ‘winners’ – and hence ‘losers’ – in my view has no place in a just modern society. Life is both more complex and more random than that, and when it comes to opportunity and fortune, ‘no man is an island’. Ultimately, we are all dependent on each other, and our systems should reflect that fact.

Whatever happens with Brexit, it is essential that this is changed in future. Unfortunately the very nature of the present system makes that, in my judgement, very unlikely, even after the present experience. What will it take to bring about change to a healthier national mindset?

Opinion & Thought

Citizens of Somewhere

I recently saw a comment by someone who said he had voted Remain “in order to get his country back”. At which point, I will hasten to say that this is not another post about Brexit. Well, not really: it’s about culture.

His point, though, was that Britain as he saw it was an open culture, that has always happily assimilated others into its own domestic life, from Jamaican music to Indian food and Italian coffee – and he saw Brexit as representing a return to an intolerant, mono-cultural past.

This set me thinking about the traditional cultures of Britain. I use the plural because even before the migrations of the Twentieth Century, these islands were always home to more than one, for all that Victorian paternalism might have tried to pretend otherwise.

I have always felt a tension in my own life between the progressive, modernist, internationalist outlook that this blog generally advocates, and my culturally more conservative side. Many of the good things I discuss here are in a cultural sense quite conservative. For example, I see no good reason to mess with traditional cuisines, when the original dishes are fine in their own right, and have stood the test of time. They did that for a reason – and more often than not, those who tamper with them rarely come up with anything as good as a finely-produced original. This applies to other cultural expressions from literacy to dress, too: fusion normally fails.

The same issue crops up in my musical tastes. In particular, the apparently conservative world of traditional music in which I’m active hardly sits well with internationalised modernist tastes. I find that conscious attempts to modernise the tradition are rarely as good as the original. Many traditional musicians these days are writing their own tunes, supposedly in the traditional idiom – but more often than not, they are little more than clever but instantly forgettable riffs, with none of the structure and character of ‘real’ traditional tunes. They derive from the blandness of pop music which is those people’s default cultural reference, rather than the inherited instincts of the traditional proper.

But the more I think about this, the less of a real conflict I see. The main point about tradition is not that it is old-fashioned, so much as timeless – and therefore there is no reason why it should not be as relevant in the present as any in past era.

While it is undoubtedly true that tradition changes over time, it tends to do so by a process of accretional, almost imperceptible evolution, rather than the attempts of radical individuals to turn things on their head. It is probably these characteristics, the perceived continuity and familiarity that give traditional things the comfort that appeals to many. (Maybe there is a lesson here for those who would push European integration too fast…) The problem is, it gets confused with a kind of stubborn, stuck-in-the-mud-ness that refuses ever to move forward. The Scots have the concept of the ‘carrying stream’: the cultural river that flows out of the past, through the present and into the future, linking the then, the now and the next into a continuum of shared identity.

Here is where the wider significance of this becomes apparent: I make a distinction between folk music (which I tend not to like) and traditional music (which I often do). This may seem to be splitting hairs – but the latter is a timeless musical form, whereas the former is a confection, an imagined past that was reconstructed from the 1960s onwards, to replace true traditions that had been allowed (or forced) to die out. One is deeply authentic, and the other is just an arcane form of popular commercial music. This is the difference between ‘real’ culture and a manufactured facsimile.

When it comes to “getting our country back”, it is not as simple as it sounds: for all that the British claim to love tradition, much of what they actually like is not, in my books, traditional at all: it, too was manufactured. We see new-build houses being described as traditional, when they are actually a facsimile collision of Victorian, Edwardian and even later references. In developer-speak, the brash little villas of the 1930s are now “traditional”. No they are not: traditional houses were not industrially constructed of mass-produced red brick and pebbledash for a start, let alone steel girders. Even if we go back further, much of what is perceived as English tradition was in fact the product of upper class Victorian imaginations. Many of our so-called traditions date no further back than that, even if they were in some ways romanticised re-interpretations of medieval times. Real traditions were not for the most part bourgeois, and were often crueller than the fey character of much modern ‘folk’ music . Proper traditional music is complex, sometimes dark and even raucous, far from the twee modern perception.

Here is the root of the English identity crisis: by sanitising and then annihilating true English traditions, bourgeois Victorians and their successors arguably severed the connection between the ordinary people of this country and their real identity. They imposed a ‘respectable’ replacement which required conformism rather than active participation, and which lost its emotional connection to the people and their terroir. Once that root had been cut, English culture lost its ability to stand up to outside influences. This is perhaps one of the reasons why, in the 20th Century, American culture made such inroads (obviously, the shared language was another). It perhaps explains why modern English culture has had to cast around so widely for other influences to give it some substance: it has lost all of its own. It may explain why a certain sort of English person is so in love with the cultures of the continent: it is a distinctiveness they perceive they lack themselves.

And it may also explain why, even in very recent times, the English in particular have struggled with the multiculturalism bought by both immigration and membership of the European Union. When one’s own culture is weak to the point of invisibility, the arrival of other, strong cultures might seem like more of a threat than it would otherwise be.

I am not by any means defending monoculturalism; I love the experience of other cultures. But I love their distinctiveness as well as their interface. Cultural exchange is fine, but finest of all if done on equal terms. And part of the English problem is perhaps that much of the population has no genuine ownership of, or even perception of, its own cultural identity. What is perceived as being English is largely imposed upper class mores of which they have little real possession; what most actually have instead is anonymous, transatlantic commercial pap.

I think it is no coincidence that those parts of Britain that are most pro-European are those with the strongest cultural identities of their own. In the case of our big cities, that is because multiculturalism already is the culture, while in Scotland and Ireland the culture is now so resurgent, that the perceived threat from in-comers is perhaps lessened. (It is also worth noting, however, that this situation was not achieved without a struggle to be free of the same bourgeois English impositions.)

And it is also no coincidence that these are British cultures that I identify most strongly with, even though I have no roots in those areas. They offer me a form of Britishness that is frankly more distinctive, dynamic and vibrant than my own invisible English one. It’s worth noting that Scottish and Irish music is hugely popular right across the continent, and further.

So I’m really not sure about the gent who wanted to “get his (multicultural) nation back”. I sympathise with his feelings – but I also believe that the whole experience would have been happier and less confrontational had the ordinary identity of these islands, and England in particular, not been diluted almost to the point of extinction in the first place.

The current prime minister described citizens of the world as being citizens of nowhere. The reason that she is wrong is that for many of them, internationalised modernity is quite capable of co-existing with a traditional identity that anchors their outward-looking present in a secure historical and geographical sense of self. What she missed about Europeanisation, as do Brexiters generally, is that it is not about the abolition of distinct cultural identities so much as their meeting, as equals, to celebrate their distinctiveness and their commonalities.

It is only people who have no secure identity of their own to begin with, who will feel threatened by this.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Significance of Flags

maladiere

This is the Maladière roundabout in Lausanne, Switzerland. If you arrive in the city by motorway from the west, this is where you end up. I remember it clearly from my first visit over thirty years ago. Lausanne is, of course, global home of the International Olympic Committee, and so proud is the city of this fact, that it has adorned the roundabout with over thirty-five flagpoles, from each of which flutter white Olympic flags. On most days, this presents a joyous and animated gateway to the city: it is quite a sight. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the roundabout, for all that I have passed it many times – and on the day Google Earth was there, there was clearly no wind. But you get the idea.

The U.K. doesn’t really have a tradition of mass flag flying, which is a pity as it is one of the windiest countries in Europe. And while we do have a fondness for our rather garish flag itself, we perhaps underestimate the importance of such things in the symbolism of nation-building. In fact, that activity is something else that has never really been felt necessary in a democratic way either. Most of the ‘wind’ hitherto generated in this country was dedicated to bigging-up the Empire (and post-Empire), and the upper classes whom it most benefitted. It was rarely inclusive. And now that flag has been significantly misappropriated by the far Right anyway.

The Europhile introspection in Britain, about where it all went wrong, shows little sign of abating. It seems increasingly accepted that the case for Britain in Europe was not lost in spring 2016 – but over the forty preceding years in which absolutely no convincing case whatsoever was made to the British people at large, as to why they should begin to see themselves as part of a European whole. The cynic in me suspects that this was entirely deliberate on the part of the political classes – as one article I read recently suggested, the U.K. saw its relationship with the continent as solely mercantile. It still does.

The next photo perhaps underlines the importance of flags: those of all the nations flying outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

EU-Flags

As well as animating an otherwise rather dull open space, this sends a powerful message, one seen frequently all over the continent, where the EU flag routinely flies alongside national and regional ones on city halls and other public buildings.

It’s not that we don’t understand this significance in Britain: we are more than happy for the flags of Australia and New Zealand, for example, to incorporate the Union Jack. I wonder how we would feel, though, if it became a requirement to incorporate the gold stars into national flags in the same way. I suspect that might be a step too far for even the most communitaire of European Commissions. In the U.K., it was controversial enough to put the stars on car registration plates, prompting a backlash from the nationalists that one still doesn’t see anywhere else.

flags

My last photo shows the exterior of Essex County Hall in Chelmsford taken a couple of weeks ago. There are four flag poles by the main entrance – quite excessive by British standards. The Essex, England and UK flags are all present – and one empty pole. I don’t ever recall seeing this occupied by the logical next step in the sequence, in thirty years of living in the area, though I may have missed it…

It has always been unusual to see the EU flag flying in Britain – so much so that I normally stopped and double-took in pride when did I see it. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In amongst all the media campaigns being organised to promote Remain, it might not have been a bad thing if, at some point in the past, there had been a concerted campaign to fly the EU flag across the country. I think the effect over those forty years would have been far more powerful.