Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Cannon fodder

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Now is hardly the time to be preoccupied by grumbles about the state of the nation. Emergencies such as the coronavirus should ideally see us setting aside our other differences and working for the common good. (I am very irritated by the email feeds that I subscribe to, which have continued to make political capital out of the situation).

However, it is also true that extreme circumstances often reveal stark realities about the way we live. Albert Camus used epidemic in his major work La Peste for precisely this purpose: the way in which various characters react in extremis speaks volumes about the real nature of the human condition.

On the one hand, locally there have been any number of small gestures of community-spirited kindness – while on the other, certain landlords elsewhere apparently intend to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent, come what may; this reflects a depressingly callous side of human nature. (Since I first drafted this, the government has said it will make such actions illegal – but the intent nonetheless remains…)

What is true of individuals is, it seems, also true of nations. The respective responses of various countries to a broadly common threat is quite revealing about the mindset of those who run them, not to say their general level of competence. To be fair, we should overlay on that the relative position of those countries in relation to the development of the pandemic. Those who were hit first can hardly be blamed for making mistakes that experience may allow others to avoid.

But it still informative to note the extent to which some nations have adopted a hawkish approach, while others have been towards the ‘dove’ end of the spectrum; this perhaps reflects varying perspectives on, and levels of compassion towards, humanity in general. And once again, Blighty seems to have been firmly in the hawkish camp. Boris Johnson’s early comments on national policy gave the impression that losses amongst the ‘ordinary ranks’ were to be considered acceptable, or at least unavoidable, collateral damage. Only later, when this was reported negatively, were slightly softer messages forthcoming.

His choice of words is also informative: he considers dealing with a virus to be a “war” in which we are all to be conscripts. It is not very different from the imagery he used for Brexit. It betrays a confrontational, winner-and-loser mentality that is of questionable utility – unless you happen to consider yourself a habitual winner, which Johnson of course does.

A salutary point, however, is that some of the countries that we have become accustomed to praising for their tolerance, progressiveness and democracy, have been quicker than the U.K. to impose conditions not too far removed from martial law. Likewise, Britain’s accursed island status has been thrown into sharp relief: on the one hand the arrival of the virus has shown the idiocy of believing that we really can pull up a drawbridge on the world – but on the other, it is perhaps true that with closed borders, islands and other remoter areas really are somewhat shielded from the risks of a wholesale pandemic that could more easily sweep across a continent.

Perhaps more important, though, is the vision with which a country is run. Are those others who have imposed draconian measures really doing so because of their underlying authoritarianism, or just a more realistic appraisal of what is in their people’s best interest? At least it appears that such policies are consistently and equally applied; I can’t help but wonder whether the gradualist British approach is designed to leave doors ajar for those who have the means to help themselves first…

I don’t subscribe to the view that the ruling class of this country is willfully neglectful of the rest of the nation. It’s more subtle than that – and Johnson is only the particularly buffoonish tip of a much larger establishment iceberg: one that is still raised to think in terms of social hierarchy, “natural orders” and its own self-evident preeminence. It can’t help it, any more than the rest of us can help having our basic assumptions – but it does have further-reaching consequences.

It is an attitude that propagates hawkishness, that makes it easy to consider the ‘ranks’ as lesser human beings, which in turn justifies in its own mind a hierarchical approach to how people are treated even in times of emergency. The key thing (just as it was in national nuclear-strike strategy) is to protect those who are ‘pivotal’  to the perpetuation of the existing order – who just happen, of course, largely to belong to one particular socio-economic stratum. Is this just the privileged protecting themselves again – or (given that many such people are senior decision-makers) a necessary strategy for continued societal functioning? It perhaps shows that in the minds of such people, the continued existence of the British State is more important in itself than that of the majority of the individuals who comprise it: an attitude that is a hangover of Empire if ever there was one.

This mindset is doing significant and increasing damage to the fabric of British society. It can be summed up as Entitlement. From their earliest days, those who are born into this segment of society is taught to assume as a ‘given’ that their destiny is assured – and that that destiny is one of privilege.

By means of accent, lineage, connections, high-paid employment, inherited wealth and education, they continue to sequester the best that this nation has to offer for their own kind, before the hoi polloi has a chance even to get near it.  Their crowning achievement is to have persuaded the rest that this is indeed a natural order, in which the principle function of the lower orders is to fall on their swords when necessary in order to perpetuate the good life for those at the top. This is why it shows so little concern for the impact of adverse events on the population at large: it really does consider those other lives to be of lesser value than its own.

It is an intractable problem. As one such person said to me some time ago: “There is so little you can do with the plebs. They are so hopeless, so basic, and with such low expectations that you really can’t consider them to be much more than cannon-fodder”.

Sadly, there is an element of truth in this. Having been working again with young people, it is all too evident that significant numbers come from backgrounds, and have expectations, that are very likely perpetuate poor-quality lives. It is extremely difficult to raise these young people’s expectations, or to persuade them that there are alternative trajectories for their lives to the ones that, by their late teens, they already seem locked into. Pointing out that there are others having very different experiences seems to do little good: they have already bought into the mindset that certain things are “not for the likes of me”. Such attitudes become an unwitting collaborator in keeping the so-called elite where it believes it belongs – and experience suggests that they really are a particularly extreme handicap in British society compared with elsewhere in Europe.

Yet when one is faced with the reality of the such starkly contrasting lives, it becomes quite easy to understand Holly Martins’ view in The Third Man, that most humans are little different from ants, whose ceasing to exist would make almost no difference. Except that its exploitation could help bulwark the higher orders further.

But it is wrong.

It is wrong in a way whose understanding of why is perhaps beyond those whose entire existence is predicated on their belief in their own preeminence. To begin with, you have to un-learn that ingrained assumption that some humans are naturally superior to others. I don’t believe that Johnson and his ilk spend their everyday lives consciously thinking and acting on this – but it is so utterly impregnated in their very existence that they probably can’t help themselves. It doesn’t help that they live and work in a bubble that thrives on such groupthink. Everything about their lives insulates them from the rest of society. This is probably why Johnson seems so little troubled by the criticism radiating from large parts of the rest of society: he simply doesn’t see that the same rules need apply to his type, nor that he need be troubled by their outrage. Part of his privilege is to be able to behave as he pleases, and answer to no one. And after all, the nation has just elected him by a landslide, hasn’t it?

But once you have un-learned the superiority complex of the ruling classes, one thing becomes apparent: it is not that everyone is important – but that in the face of a pandemic, no one is. And once you have accepted that, it becomes very much easier to understand why egalitarianism really is the only logical response – making sure that everyone has the best stab at this life that they can, for there are still so many things about this life that we cannot control that we really do need to optimise those that we can.

The hierarchy that still bedevils every facet of this country, even down to its pandemic management, fails to understand one thing: it is not a survivor of the brutishness of so much of national life, so much as its source. Those (supposedly) lower British orders need not be any coarser than they are in other countries; what makes them so is their knowing lack of opportunity and access to the more elevating aspects of life. And this has primarily been caused by the hoarding tendencies of those with the means to do so: the higher orders are not the refugees from baseness that they seem to believe: they are its cause.

In Italy, residents of the big apartment blocks have responded to their incarceration by singing on their balconies; in Britain, the media seems to be responding to a similar scenario by reminding the nation how much television there is to watch. This is the extent to which such disparities in everyday life-opportunity infiltrate national psyches. I have had to work hard to persuade my teenage students that there is plenty they could do to stop themselves getting bored in the coming months. But they are mostly not that resourceful; British society encourages them to be otherwise.

Life today is in many ways far removed from Hobbes’ view of it as “nasty, brutish – and short”. But we still have far to go – and it is perhaps it is during extreme times, whether Brexit or the pandemic that this is exposed. Some people are starting to describe these things as a wake-up call. Perhaps the test of this theory will be whether those who increasingly run the show use it to bulwark their own positions, or finally to wake up to another reality. After all, the really essential workers at times like this are the ones doing the most basic but essential work – and maybe we need reminding of that fact.

Perhaps the most likely eventuality is that the present economic model – which (with education) is the prime mechanism for perpetuating privilege – may simply fail to cope with this emergency; the fact that Johnson has already hinted at a universal basic income and eviction controls may be a sign that realities are being faced that might otherwise not have been.

On the face of it, a virus does not discriminate between people according to their wealth or social status – but the ability (and willingness) of the elites to protect themselves at others’ expense will no doubt – as Camus pointed out – speak volumes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.

For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.

And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.

So here is a brief explanation.

  1. The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
  2. Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
  3. This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
  4. In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example,  to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
  5. As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
  6. The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
  7. While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
  8. Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
  9. The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
  10. Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
  11. The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
  12. This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.

A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.

Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.

High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.

An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)

All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

After the storm.

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After the storm came the calm. The passage of 31st January 2020 was always going to be difficult – and so it proved, despite my best efforts to ignore it. But it was also a non-event as most of the country remained quiet.

The following morning, I woke to a strange sense of relief – I guess a natural reaction to the knowledge that an unpleasant ‘peak’ was finally past. But that in turn is giving way to a more sombre mood, as the reality of what came to pass sinks in – assisted by the first depressing indications from the government about what it intends next.

For me, the shock of Brexit was compounded by the fact that this is the dénouement of something I have striven for not for three, but more than thirty years – ever since I first visited the European Parliament in 1989, and my already-nascent Europeanism crystallised into something more specific. But all those years of battling widespread indifference, when Europeanism was seen in the UK, if at all, as an eccentric minority concern, seem finally to have ended in rejection.

For this reason, too, it has seemed all the more cruel that I have had simultaneously to contend with several years of poor mental health (thankfully also largely past), which made every surge and slump of hope that much more acute.

But we must rise above. I made myself quite unpopular at times by questioning both the motives and methods of some of those campaigning for remain. I am unrepentant – because I know that the insight that comes from self-scrutiny is an essential part of understanding. And from understanding comes greater effectiveness.

I still worry that the irrationality, even hysteria, that was seen in some quarters of the remain camp, was an expression not of resilience, but the lack of it. I have found my own greatest reserves in the knowledge that membership of the European Union is not the same as being European. The latter is an entirely personal matter of perspectives, values and choices, that cannot be taken away by mere political changes. It took thirty years to grow, and I have my doubts that it can be ‘acquired’ in three. 

I fear that the extreme emphasis placed by some on the technical and political losses of Brexit only betrayed the void that lay behind. Clinging to the technical minutiae was in fact an expression of the insecurity of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, not its strength. For many in the UK, membership of the EU was perhaps their only apparent means of European expression. It is not. The objection to things that were being taken away was perhaps indicative of the lack of appreciation – or ‘ownership’ – of those things that cannot be taken away.

I don’t for a moment blame anyone for that – the climate in this country for five decades has done nothing whatsoever to encourage people to think otherwise. But in a sense, the remain movement was nonetheless an expression not of the solidarity of British Europeanism, but the opposite: something already barely within reach that was now being taken away. My reason for pointing this out was simply to alert people to that possibility. It seemed to have escaped notice that some of the sentiments being expressed in the name of “Europe” were diametrically opposed to what that ideal supposedly stands for. The fact that I fell on deaf, even hostile ears only confirmed my fears.

But that is why it was ultimately futile: over 47 years, Europeanism utterly failed to resonate in any cultural sense for the vast majority of people in Britain, such that Brexit would represent the ripping away of anything at all. By contrast, the Leave camp was able to appeal to precisely that “gut” instinct of its latent support base, that they were regaining something of value.

Grieving is a necessary and important process. It brings catharsis, and ultimately acceptance. But even in its depths, our rational selves can still recognise it for what it is. I’m not convinced that utterly abandoning ourselves inconsolably to it is ultimately helpful. We might at least accept that grief is capable of hugely distorting our world view – and save important decisions and declarations for a time when we are more rational again.

This is why I think it is essential that we pro-Europeans to take a hard look at ourselves, as soon as we each feel capable of doing so. I think it is why we should be cautious about knee-jerk reactions, such as those “rejoin” demonstrations that have already taken place. They could do a lot more harm than good at the moment. Discretion needs to be the better part of valour.

Now is precisely the moment when those rational selves need to reassert themselves, painful though that may feel; nobody said this was going to be easy. We must all rise above. After all, profiling of pro-Europeans suggests that they are more likely to be highly-educated and with a forward-looking, progressive view of the world. If we neglect the advantages that this confers, then we really will need to abandon all hope. The backward-looking traditionalists will have won.

So what is to be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on the personal aspects of Europeanism that are solely within the individual’s control. Ask yourself hard questions about what it actually rests on for you. Is it simply the desire to go through the fast lanes at passport control, or it is an integral part of your daily life? How familiar are you with the reality of the rest of Europe – or is it just a holiday destination? Are you a role model for what Europeanism means? How many languages do you speak? (This above all is something we need to address). In what ways has wider European culture shaped your own day-to-day life? Do you follow European affairs as a matter of course? When you conceive of where you live, which map comes to mind (the British one, or the European one)? What choices and values do you live by – and what are you transmitting to your children and those around you? How many genuine friends do you have in other countries? (If none, can this be fostered?) Europeanism is ultimately about horizons and perspectives – our own.
  2. Accept that on the one hand there is little to be done about the current national situation – but on the other, that it is not set in stone forever. In five years’ time, there will be another election, and a subsequent government will not necessarily pursue the same hard-line policies as the current one. We need to do everything possible to ensure that a change of regime is achieved.
  3. Look at the domestic situation. Many of the flaws in this country that led to Brexit were not caused by it. We need to maintain the pressure for electoral reform, for regional rebalancing, for less inequality, and for awareness-building amongst a wider public, about the merits of ongoing Europeanism (not just EU membership). If the current government assists by addressing some of the regional issues, then we should give credit where it is due – and recognise that they are actually helping to reduce dissatisfaction with the state of this country. Regional aid is, after all, a European approach. That can help us – and it may well be that the actual trajectory of the country will do so too, should the economy and social provision plummet further.
  4. Realise that we are not immune to human weakness. Perhaps the greatest current threat is simply that the passage of time will blunt pro-Europeanism, as people become acclimatised to a new reality: the acceptance that grief eventually brings. There is no point in dismissing that possibility at present: it is simply too soon to tell. A harsh reality is that acute events tend to mobilise people to action, but their removal can have an equally rapid dissipating effect – and the peak moment in the anti-Brexit mobilisation is now past. No one can be sure exactly how much will be left of the remain movement two years from now – and anyone suggesting the contrary is claiming things that are simply not knowable.
  5. Accept that reconciliation will be necessary. That means give as well as take. It is probably true that views are now so polarised that a whole segment of the British population is beyond reach. But remember too, in your shame and frustration, that we are not the only European nation to have such people. We still have at least to tolerate them: I am not convinced that the condescension and condemnation that flowed towards them helped the Remain cause one iota. It just embedded a lot of their prejudices. In order to reverse Brexit at some point, we will need to convince those who are not currently strong Europeans. Demographics are on our side – as may be coming events. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate what has been lost – and how it can be regained. The first thing to do is to tackle the very thing that never took root in the first place: the shifts necessary in the national mindset to bring real European understanding to this country in a way that, had it existed, would never have allowed the Brexiters to rip it away. Until that genuine love of Europe is embedded in our national psyche, then no political campaign is likely to succeed.

This is not a matter of national politics; it a matter of the personal choices of every person in the country. It may not make much progress for a long time – but it can begin now.

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Sea birds on the Essex mudflats on Bidet. Tomorrow they might be on the Rhine estuary. Brexit means nothing to them.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Backward to the future – How English!

Englishness – final part: solutions.

The images below show residential quarters of three small British towns. It is possible to identify where they were taken?

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The first image comes from northern Scotland, not far from Inverness; the second from southern East Anglia, and the third from East Devon. The straight-line distance between the first and the other two is about 460 miles each, while the second and third are about 200 miles apart.

But in many ways, they could almost be parts of the same place. Apart from some climate-related differences, there is really little to separate them – and in a way, I believe this is a profound expression of the identity crisis within Britain, England in particular.

As I discussed previously, Englishness is an elusive concept. While the Scots, Welsh and Irish have, if anything strengthened the celebrations of their national days in recent years, St George’s Day remains a Cinderella – or an embarrassment. There are many reasons for this, and the British are not the only nation to fight shy of such overt patriotism – but as anyone who has experienced national days in France or even reserved Switzerland will know, they can have a powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and ‘belonging’. People celebrate them because they choose to, not because they’re told to.

The purpose of the three images is to illustrate how little regard we have in this country for regional differences. It is true that the pictures were intentionally selected to show this; the more historic parts of the three towns do look rather different. But given how important ‘home’ is to people’s sense of identity, it is perhaps concerning that for a hundred years or more, we have increasingly expunged localness from people’s dwelling-places. And what we have replaced it with largely lacks character of any sort at all.

We don’t seem to be making much headway either: while more recent builds sometimes incorporate nods to local vernacular, they are rarely little more than stick-on additions to developers’ standard products. And the quality is so poor! The build and environment of the average British residential area more closely resembles what I have seen in some former eastern-bloc countries than most of our western European neighbours.

Such things might not seem the most obvious place to start when addressing a crisis of national identity – but a moment’s thought might show that the places where people live – where they most closely identify with – might be precisely the place to start. If we are to address this perceived deficiency, then no amount of flag-waving ceremonial can achieve the same impact as attending to the basics of ordinary ‘lived lives’.

We need to address the fact that the traditional nation-state may no longer be the most appropriate model for identity-loyalty. In fact, it may never have been. Prior to the nineteenth century, most communities had a much more local sense of themselves; before the coming of the railways, neither time nor currency was fully standardised.

What happened since may be seen as “progress”, but there is no guarantee that people’s fundamental psychological needs have kept up – particularly for those who have least access horizon-broadening education and travel, and the ability to benefit from it. (Even where I live, a mere 45 miles from London, there are still people who see those from the next village, three miles away, as ‘other’; it is easily done…)

The nation-state is arguably the product of a past era, whose purpose was not to serve its citizens, but to compete externally with other nation-states. To that end, it was necessary to construct a common sense of purpose and commitment within the population-workforce. That was particularly effectively done in the UK due to its hierarchical social structures, strong ruling class and the state’s longevity. History speaks for itself.

But the fact that we have these top-down national structures is no guarantee of the depth to which they really penetrate into people’s real identities. Identity is primarily a matter of personal experience; it is not really something that can be commanded. In the modern era, a more widely educated population has started to see nationalism for the construct that it is; groups of all kinds are demanding the right to define their own identities.

At a more local level, nationwide policies have eroded the local distinctiveness that perhaps resonates more fully with people in terms of their personal identity. The fact that one is almost obliged live in bland, identical houses the length of this nation – ones that show no respect whatsoever to the physical or cultural environments in which they are situated – can be seen as an important expression of that erasure.

A significant defining difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe was the experience of 1939-45. The nations currently with the most stable social settlements seem largely to be those which were forced to re-build from the ground up in the post-war period. They had every incentive to create structures and mindsets that would not lead them back to their past – including the EU; they seem to have very largely succeeded.

In the UK, by comparison, the experience of “winning” the War led to the further entrenching of dated attitudes and structures that have become increasingly unfit for modern purpose. One of those was the enduring strength of the centralised nation-state. Other countries that tended in a similar way, for example France and Italy, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge that regionalism is necessary to accommodate popular demand.

But in the UK, the trend has been in precisely the opposite direction. There was no incentive to do otherwise while the nation’s entire structure was predicated on social hierarchy and the preservation of the elite classes. One of the reasons that the houses in those photographs are so dismal is that the living conditions of the “ordinary people” have simply not been seen as sufficiently important in the corridors of power for anyone to do much about it.

The same could be said for almost any aspect of this nation; this has led to the gross socioeconomic polarisation that we see today – and which in turn undoubtedly fed the disaffection that ironically caused much of the population to turn against an EU whose nearer member-states arguably represent models that could help us to solve some of these problems. It certainly applied to education – the want of which (in an intellectual as opposed to functional sense) also fed Brexit because much of the population was neither sufficiently engaged nor equipped to make the complex decision with which it was presented.

So it may be that we need to go “backward to the future”. The crisis in identity is in large part based in the fact that the one we already have was built for an earlier era, one where authoritarian imposition was sufficient to make people “buy in”. That identity – and almost all of the cultural icons that came to represent it – were based overwhelmingly on class hierarchy rather than anything more universal. The elite called all the shots; the middle tried to conform – and the rest were left to define themselves with the scant pickings that were left. It was based on competition for privilege, and top-down control, rather than genuine collaboration in a shared identity.

This mindset is still far more dominant in the British psyche today than many realise. Almost all aspects of British society and culture still hinge on social signalling and competitiveness, rather than any common sense of identity (the only sharing is within our internal tribes). What we eat, wear, inhabit or drive are more signals of social status than anything else. Any glance through the Sunday supplements will reveal endless role-models for status-seeking. All that has changed – if anything – is that money and material goods have come to assume a more visible aspect of that labelling, while ephemeral cultural goods such as art, literature and civic duty have declined.

In the process, people’s more instinctive identities, focused on much smaller areas, were overridden. The construction of identikit mass housing the length of the nation from the nineteenth century on was just one particularly visible example – superficially unifying, but only in an impoverished sense – and to an identity that they did not necessarily embrace.

In general, the concerns of government have not been the practical emancipation of the general populace. The Right has increasingly bulwarked the existing hierarchy, while the Left has mostly sought to replace one elite with another. What is really needed is for the concept of social elitism to be dispensed with altogether. This might seem naively idealistic – yet it is my repeated and persistent impression that social competition and exclusivity is simply a much less significant feature of society in places such as The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It is not that they reject it: they don’t need to. It barely even figures. An acquaintance who moved to France with relatively little knowledge of that country recently observed to me how much more genuinely egalitarian it is than the UK – and despite the glorious revolution, France is hardly the best example. The need to climb the ladder is inversely proportional to conditions at its foot; it is those that have never been paid sufficient attention to in Britain.

By removing competitive elitism, the matter of individual and group identities can shift to being something more genuinely universal and inclusive. This is why, I believe, we get such as strong sense of collective culture and ‘identity’ when we visit countries where that is the case: their cultural capital of all sorts – both high and low – is not fragmented by class, but is “owned” by a much wider section of the populace. Food, art, fashion, décor, music and more are simply less obviously a matter of monopolisation by a small elite. That is not to say it doesn’t exist – think BCBG signalling in Paris for example – but it is not particularly socially-exclusive to go to the opera in Italy – because opera is “owned” by nearly everyone. Even in the world of fashion, designer clothing is more often sold on its quality and style; less-often on its “exclusivity”. Scandinavian countries, of course, take equality several stages further. And as a result, you also rarely see the inverse-snobbery of bling and chavism where extreme (or inverted) social climbing attempts to misappropriate things perceived to be outside its natural territory.

So the key to curing England’s identity crisis is, ironically to do “less England”. Given that so much of its traditional identity is saturated with the issues discussed above, we need to find a different basis on which to build. The most obvious thing to use is regionalism. Everyone has to live somewhere, and without recourse to gated communities, places are difficult to make exclusive. Places are generally things experienced (“cognitively owned”) by all. It could be made a lot more so if land ownership were not so overwhelmingly private… In effect, we need to break England up into its constituent regions – not only in an administrative and economic sense – but in a cultural one too – and give them to their people.

Baden-Württemberg in Germany is a land about 150 miles by 100; Bavaria is somewhat larger at about 200 by 150. But both are not radically different in size from the standard economic regions which already exist in Britain. (Scotland by area may already be too large as a single unit). The difference with länder in Germany, cantons in Switzerland, regions in Italy and France is that those all have a cultural and geographic identity as opposed to a purely administrative one, as is the low-key British norm. It is not a panacea: there are internal tensions, for example, between Baden and Württemberg and between Swiss cantons (not to mention the Belgian provinces…) – but it is also interesting that there was significant outcry in France at the recent re-consolidation of smaller-sized regions into larger blocs.

The question is how to do this – but the answer is not as difficult as it might seem; again we can take ideas from other countries. Those standard regions – or something like them – need to be explicitly identified and named in the public consciousness in a way that they currently are not. They need to be given their own regional governments and state capitals. They need to be given flags, signage – and perhaps even anthems. They need to have the power to vary local laws and taxes; to exert control over matters like planning and environmental protection. They need to be able to champion their distinctiveness in matters such as food, history, accents, customs, landscape, economy, architecture and transport. This last is significant: a way of binding a region is through creating the perception of regional integration. It works on the railways in some areas, such as Scotrail and Greater Anglia – but they need to strengthen the regional emphasis. These regions need to be given meaningful budgets in order to promote these things. They then need to send representatives to London.

EA
East Anglia’s flag

It would all feel rather artificial at first, of course. There would no doubt be huge scepticism. But a concerted programme of gentle, benign state-building over a period of decades would start to change this – assisted by the generational churn. And over time, I believe people would start to acquire meaningful identities based on places rather than social status. Rivalries would probably emerge – as to some extent already exist – but that would probably be a good thing, so long as they were gentle. Existing identities in some parts of the country could be used as a basis – but they would need to shift from the rather defensive semi-defiance of today into something more wholly positive.
As this became established, people would start to feel pride and security in those identities; they would “own” the iconography that went with them in a more authentic, less defensive way than now – and they might hopefully perceive those who chose to migrate to their regions as welcome arrivals in a shared enterprise that was strong enough to assimilate them.

In the long run, I think this would also shift British perceptions of the rest of Europe too – not only because that is where many of those migrants might come from – but because we would feel that we could engage with the rest on a much more equal, proactive footing. It is worth noting that German länder retain direct representation at the EU in Brussels. On the fourth flag pole, along with the regional national and union flag, could fly the gold-stars-on-blue: something else that has never routinely happened in this country. At that stage, we might finally be ready to re-join.

But whether a nation that seems so culturally atrophied at all levels that it is terrified of voting for any change at all will ever manage to enact this, is a question of an entirely different magnitude.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Ditch the Dogma?

I have never belonged to a political party. Well, almost never. I joined the Labour Party for a short while, with the explicit intention of electing Jeremy Corbyn. I believed – and still do – that his policies were what the country needs at present. (It was the only time in my life where my vote has had any meaningful effect. Afterwards, my membership lapsed, as I felt the job was done, and the Party should not be further influenced by arrivistes).

For what it’s worth, I still think that move was successful. For all Corbyn’s subsequent disappointments, he has succeeded in shifting the national agenda to the Left. He put properly social-democratic policies back into the public arena. That may be his legacy.

But after the initial shock of last week’s election result, I have a problem. I have inadvertently found myself not disagreeing with a few of the things Boris Johnson has now said. I am entirely aware of the great likelihood that much of it is hot air, perhaps even intentionally so. I am not about to start trusting the man one iota. But more than that, as I said above, I am not and never will be, dogmatically partisan.

My political decisions derive purely from aligning my wishes and beliefs for my country with a party that says it will deliver them. It has never been a perfect fit; that’s life. Normally I have been best accommodated by the left-of-centre parties. But if another part of the political spectrum starts making noises that I agree with, why should I dismiss them purely on tribal grounds? Not doing so is surely the mark of a modern, independent-minded voter, and of politics working properly. A bigger failure was the tradition of voting tribally, according to generations of family loyalty, with one party sanctified and the others condemned purely as a matter of ritual.

In the last days, Johnson has reportedly said:

  • The Conservative Party needs to change for good. Err, yes.
  • The government’s newly-elected northern MPs need to “deliver” for their constituencies. Err, yes.
  • That those northern votes are probably only loaned to the Conservatives. Err, yes.
  • That he has “got the message” on the NHS and will enshrine higher spending in Law. Err, yes.
  • That he will invest in rail transport and other infrastructure. Err, yes.
  • That we need to come together as a nation. Err, yes.
  • That we will shake up the Civil Service. Err, yes – with reservations over how and why.

It’s hardly a full manifesto-worth of agreement, and once again, I concede that what he says and what he does may well be very different things – but he would hardly be the first politician for whom that was true. Yet if what I perceive as the ‘right’ decisions are made for the country, does it really matter very much who makes them? Isn’t that the whole point of representational politics?

I have read much about the poor state of British government. There are plenty of authoritative, independent writers such as Anthony King who advocated a major overhaul of the Civil Service years ago. Its upper echelons have possibly been a major obstacle to change in Britain for too long. There was a reason so many politicians loved Sir Humphrey Appleby: they recognised the accuracy of the character. For all that Appleby has a point (below) surely the prospect of dismantling such pillars of the establishment ought to appeal to the Left?

There are clearly big risks – not that the nation now has much choice but run with them. Regrettably, matters such as electoral reform are probably once again out of the question for the time being: Johnson hardly has the incentive to look at it.

And then there is the matter of Brexit. On this, I am resolutely and implacably opposed to Johnson’s past direction of travel. It is a defining matter;  even alone it ensures that I will never actually vote Conservative.

But that does not imply there is nothing to be done. It pays to listen to your opponents. The much-despised Dominic Cummings is no fool, and he may have a point when he claims that the Remain movement inadvertently hardened the likely outcome by making compromise more difficult. Johnson is now largely free of the need to pander to Nigel Farage and his own hard-liners too, if he so chooses. There is some evidence to suggest that he is not a hard Brexiter by instinct. As a teacher, I know there are times when you have to put your foot down, to over-state your case.

There have been a few other noises from Conservative MPs about recognising the depth of feeling of pro-Europeans. That itself is progress. Sometimes, in order to achieve (some of) your objectives, it is also necessary to give some ground in order to allow your opponent to come towards a mid-point. So there is perhaps still a slim chance that Brexit will be soft, which while still objectionable, is less so than the other type. 

An underlying tenet of the Remain campaign is presumably that it values European ways of doing things. When it comes to politics, the ‘European Way’ involves talking to your opponents, trying to find consensus and compromise, metaphorically holding your nose – and working with them where possible. That approach was also defended by the Left over Corbyn’s contact with various rebel groups.

By contrast, the stubborn tribalism seen in the Brexit conflict – which involved a bunker mentality on both sides – did nothing more than perpetuate the traditionally confrontational nature of British politics. It is all too evident where that has now led. For all that pro-Europeans portray themselves as compassionate, reasonable people, there has been a lot of talk that does not really fit that description, even if it didn’t quite plumb the depths of the Brexiters. No matter how much they feel they were forced into this, the ‘big’ thing to do now is to play a part in the reconciliation process. It will not be easy – but that is the European approach. The Far Right, in particular thrives on uncompromising attitudes from others; this somehow needs to be defused rather than stoked.

There is a need to start looking for places, no matter how slim, where agreement can be found. Perhaps the starting point is the relative consensus about the fundamental problems facing this country, irrespective of their attributed causes.

Pro-Europeans do not need to set aside their views; indeed they need to argue for them all the more strongly in future. Part of the European movement’s failure has been the absence of challenge to forty years of misinformation; that needs to change. But there is now a need to engage with the opposition in the hope that at least a tolerable compromise can be reached. Has Johnson just hinted at willingness?

There is a strong possibility that I am being too optimistic, born from nothing more than temporary relief at the removal of uncertainty. Fundamental beliefs need to be protected. Extreme caution will be very necessary. But I think we should not be too hasty to condemn developments that have not yet happened, which may be born more of fear and disillusionment than clear thinking – and we should also be ready to endorse positive actions if and when they do occur – even if they are a compromise on our ideal situation – and even – perhaps especially? – when they come from our opponents.

In this, I think the EU itself has been a model institution: willing beyond the call of duty to engage with a withdrawing UK despite its regret at the situation, standing firm on its own fundamental position – and seeking a workable compromise.

That is the modern European way.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

If you want to understand the UK election result, look at Ireland, not the continent.

Back in 2015, at the end of a more innocent age, Tim Marshall wrote a book called Prisoners of Geography. In it, he argued that the principal governing force behind human activity is not, as we choose to think, free will – but the geographical configuration of the planet on which we live.

Geopolitics is not a widely-discussed subject – at least not explicitly so, though according to Marshall, much of what happens in the world is underpinned by it. This is no less true of the 2019 British General Election result, which saw a right-wing nationalist party returned with an increased majority – and the issue that underlay it: Brexit.

Pro-European Britons, particularly on the Left, may be reeling under what they see as the denial of the self-evident truth of the modern world, namely the U.K.’s future as a social-democratic member of the E.U. It was very attractive to a certain sort of well-travelled, often-educated Briton for whom the EU had increasingly felt like home – me included.

But our dream of the place we earnestly believe that Britain needs to be is, and always has been, compromised by those pesky geopolitics. The 2019 election has just shown this once again: our worldview is simply not persuasive enough to carry a decisively large percentage of the wider British public with it. The tough fact is, the U.K. is marginal to the European land mass, and it has always had split loyalties as a result; EU membership was simply not important enough to many enough for the issue to carry the election. And that’s without considering Britain’s history, which has left it with a deluded sense of its own importance. For centuries, British policy was to divide the continent in order to prevent an anti-British alliance (which itself may have been more neurosis than real threat – but it worked). What has really changed? But maritime nations are no longer strategically pivotal; instead, they have become marginal. The British seem not to have noticed.

The Interrail generation has always ‘read’ the U.K. from its proximity to the continent. We travelled widely; we formed international friendships; we eagerly grasped every shred of evidence that the U.K. was gradually becoming more like the rest of the Europe that we saw and admired. It was not a delusion: particularly in the last twenty years, since the internet turbocharged communications, there has indeed been convergence, some visible, some less so. Eurosceptics glued to their TVs during the Champions’ League know not what they do. Eurostar altered perceptions too – albeit mostly for those living in the South East. The fact that the British economy shed its post-war difficulties was probably also due to integration with a larger entity – that effect has repeatedly been observed elsewhere. In pure trading terms, the ‘economies of scale’ count. But we ignored the fact that they don’t work socially, culturally – and perhaps geopolitically. In reality, Britons as a whole are little more ‘Europeanised’ than they ever were.

If you want to understand Britain in those terms, don’t look at the continent; look at Ireland. For in doing so, we hold a more realistic mirror to our own place vis-à-vis the rest of Europe, and perhaps gain a better understanding of the true nature of our own country. Simply put, continentals perceive the U.K. in something like the way the British perceive Ireland.

I can’t claim to know Ireland intimately, though I have travelled over much of its southern half – and through my love of its music, I have repeatedly rubbed up against its people, both music-friends who live there, and Irish friends in the U.K. Playing ‘their’ music may have provided something of a cultural pass-partout that other Brits have not had. For my purposes here, I will also plead guilty to doubtful wisdom of blurring the political and geographical uses of the term ‘Ireland’, because we are really talking about a combination of the two.

To an even greater extent than the U.K., Ireland is not a modern European country. True, if you drive around the Dublin ring-road, you will see light industrial estates similar to those on the outskirts of Rouen or Ghent. True, if you take the empty new toll motorways to the west, you could easily believe that you were on a western-French autoroute on which they have been conspicuously modelled. True, in central Dublin, you can use the tram as you can in Strasbourg or Basel. But it doesn’t take long to realise that these things are symbols of desire, a statement of what the modern Ireland wants to be, not what it yet wholly is; that is still visible down the side-streets. Outside these bubbles, much of Ireland still struggles with its location on the periphery of Europe, where the land is often poor, and where the population, while youthful and rising, is low enough to make wider development problematic. You can see it in the difficulty that the Irish have had with developing their infrastructure: the place simply isn’t big or populated enough to compete successfully with a whole continent, now that continents matter more than seaways. Without the EU funds, it might not have happened at all.

You can also find it in the mindset. I don’t for a moment wish to indulge in typical English condescension towards a country whose culture is, in many ways stronger and more productive than my own – but it still has a largely nostalgic, provincial mentality. The modernity that I described strikes me as a somewhat contrived denial of a historico-geo-political reality that is still uncomfortably close to the surface. This is an island where religion has only quite recently lost a significant grip – and allowed the ‘permissiveness’ of modern internationalism seen in otherwise-universal matters such as abortion and same-sex partnerships – and where it is still seen as novel – even if proudly so – for the Premier to be non-white and gay.

It is a nation that still venerates its past – as seen in the enduring presence of traditional music – even though its actual practice is a minority interest in a nation that is prouder of having produced the likes of U2. But Irish exports still overwhelmingly play on traditional images of Ireland. It still takes little for bitter-sweet nostalgia for the island’s troubled past to come pouring out. While the small towns with their multitude of independent businesses may look picturesque, they are still demographically and economically precarious – often dated, and hardly an expression of modern Europe. They are resolutely inward-looking: while Irish hospitality is everything it is reputed to be, the communities feel introspective; the warm welcome is that extended to strangers, not the familiarity of fellow-locals.

Even the shiny buildings in Dublin’s docklands have been built using cash that had be attracted by an aggressive policy of ultra-low corporation tax, which is a distinctly un-European approach. When we first visited around fifteen years ago, much of the South resolutely failed the Cappucino Test: our tongue-in-cheek measure of how cosmopolitan a place actually is. On more than one occasion, the advertised cappuccino turned out to be filter-coffee topped with aerosol cream… and while things have definitely improved since, in our experience, it is still not certain that a decent vegetarian meal will always be available.

But above all, Ireland is a long way from the continent. Not necessarily in terms of kilometres – but because those kilometres are mostly water, in people’s minds they expand ad infinitum. You can only get in and out by ship or aircraft, as used to be the case in the UK too. The sheer practical fact of Ireland’s physical isolation alone is sufficient to explain most of the above – and indeed the admirable determination of the Irish that it will be otherwise. But you only have to arrive via the docks at Dublin or Waterford to be reminded that pretty much every expression of modern, cosmopolitan Ireland has to be imported.

While the practical, economic benefits for Ireland of belonging to a much larger economic unit are most visible, I can also sympathise entirely with Ireland’s Europeanism  on another level: as a peripheral lump of rock on the edge of both a large continent and a larger ocean, it actually has more to prove – including to itself – than those countries closer to the core of Europe, where it happens much more easily and naturally. It is not alone; it is a known cultural phenomenon that peripheral areas identify more strongly with their cultural cores than those cores do with themselves. (We see the same with the Ulster Unionists vis à vis the UK). In the case of Eire, there is also a strong imperative to define the modern nation in opposition to its historic master (on which it is nonetheless heavily reliant) – namely the UK.

At the same time, it is these peripheral areas that experience conflicted identities. The characteristics I have described above are not unique to Ireland; many outlying parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to Southern Italy, have difficulty in identifying unreservedly with the core European identity. In fact, we should not claim that Europe is only about that core identity: it is a dispersed and disparate place – but for all that, there clearly is a core, built around France, Germany and Benelux. While it has not been an entirely smooth journey, at least the Irish have had the sense to understand that their best future lies in a partnership with that core, in a way that many British still refuse to do – and they are getting on with it.

I do hope that Irish readers understand this is not criticism of their country. The key point is this: the British have historically tended to look down on the Irish as provincial, disorganised and poor. They have seen Ireland as a country riven by backward-looking sectarian tribalism and hamstrung by poor geography. Those geographical realities have indeed done more to shape the Irish state – and still do – than the modern Irish might be comfortable admitting.

But as I said at the outset, we British can learn a lot from Ireland. Our problem with the EU is that in relation to the continent, we are just the same. Jean-Claude Juncker quipped that “everyone understands English – but no one understands England”. It is truer than he realises – in much the same way as the English don’t really understand the Irish. They are islanders, they are ‘other’; their different geopolitics gives them a fundamentally different mindset as a result. Continentals – being continental – tend to underestimate it. Equally, no post-joining attempt was made at European state-building in the UK, because it was never understood to be important.

Like the Irish, we British are still essentially islanders, also more primitive, more tribal and more inward-looking than we care to admit, no matter what the aspirations of a minority. Insular cultures tend to be conservative, and they are habitually suspicious of ‘foreign’ influences. In some ways, our closer proximity to the continent only exacerbates the problem, amplifying the inequalities between the South East and the rest and making the identity-dilemma all the sharper. What’s more, while the Irish share with many continental countries, relative youth as a nation – and traumatic events in their recent past that has forced them to think hard and positively about the kind of nation they want to be – the UK was able to wallow in post-War triumphalism and ignore such issues – until now, when hard choices belatedly need to be made.

The recent election has simply showed this all over again: when the chips were down, the British voted for More of The Same. Very little has really changed. The prospect of a European future was sloughed off in favour of the usual insular, inward-looking delusion of purely national greatness that always prevails. Sadly for we pro-Europeans, this is the true nature of the British people. De Gaulle spotted it when he vetoed the UK applications to join in the 1960s. Little has really changed – because the fundamental geography that gives rise it never does. Such delusions can only come from un-connected living on an island, permanently decoupled from the greater tides of humanity that have shaped modern continental co-operation. Until the next ice age, when sea level falls and the land-bridge returns, it will be ever thus.

Most of us as quite literally too far away to see what we are missing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Maintaining the momentum

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.