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Britain is not radical enough. That is why we're in trouble

Orwell said that our national detachment could be seen as a form of wisdom - but indifference has landed us in the mess we're in
  • Henry Porter
  • Henry Porter, The Observer, Sunday 31 May 2009

Travelling to Hay-on-Wye last weekend on one of the most beautiful days in recent years, it was difficult to comprehend the disasters that we read about every day. The landscape was resplendent; I passed a fete with several elderly men in Panama hats stooped over cake and plant stands, cyclists, anglers, ramblers in the Golden Valley, people pottering in gardens - it was Britain of a 1950s lithograph with a Morris Minor Traveller somewhere in the foreground, an image that still lurks in our idea of the country and what it stands for.

Granted, things are quite different in the crime hot spots of Peckham, Moss Side and Westminster but it's worth remembering that a lot of national life is not in upheaval and that most institutions are untouched by scandal. Britain is still a remarkably peaceful place with a canny and humorous population that is never better represented than by that audience at Hay signalling disapproval and interest with the shrewdness of buyers at a country livestock market.

In these moments, when we appear to be in some kind of national crisis and are at the same time called upon to vote as Britons in an election held in the huge, largely mysterious aggregation of 27 states, and when there is something presuming to call itself the British National party, we begin to fret over our national identity. Worries that Britain has somehow lost its specialness prompt frantic definitions of Britishness and Britain's values, all of which seem to meet with universal lack of success.

Britain is best defined in the negative - it is easier to say what we are not, rather than what we are. And on the principle that the truest line is always the one drawn quickest, I want to lasso a few examples from the news to say what we are not.

We are not by any means a corrupt nation, despite the tormenting series of revelations in the Daily Telegraph, which by now seem less heroic than the average pest control operation. Nor are we a pitiless people although the state acting in the name of British interest over the last 100 years has made some heartless blunders (the Cossacks forcibly returned to the USSR from Austria in 1945, the suppression of the Mau Mau, the H-Blocks in Ulster). We are not an angry nation though once riled, as now, we tend to be unforgiving, and we do not easily forget.

We are not, despite our convictions to the contrary, a particularly democratic nation. If we were, we would have insisted on proportional representation long ago. We like our governments to get on with it and decide most things for us even if they represent a minority of voters. We often fail to see governments and politicians for what they are. And we are not radicals, a fact that may disappoint those - including me - that argue for a written constitution and reform of the political system.

We fondly think of ourselves as hospitable and open to new influences. But on the evidence of new laws that ban artists, musicians and academics from visiting Britain without certificates of sponsorship, we are not. When a Newfoundland-based singer Allison Crowe and two of her band members, Billie Woods and Laurent Boucher, arrived at Gatwick to tour Britain they were arrested, held in cells, photographed and fingerprinted and had their passports stamped "Barred from Entry" before being returned to Canada. This shocking and disgraceful treatment - designed to exclude illegal immigrants and terrorists - seems fundamentally unBritish. The English National Opera and Southbank have both had problems bringing in foreign performers because of the stringent requirement for non-EU citizens to provide biometrics and photographs and submit to controls over their day-to-day activity while here.

Is this Britain? If so, the rational half of our brain has been overwhelmed by "suspicion and parochialism", in the words of the staunchly sensible Manifesto Club, which has started a petition against the laws brought in by immigration minister Phil Woolas.

We are not, surely, the censorious nation that seems to insist that a 39-year-old artist, Helen Gorrill, applies to the police for their judgment on her work at the suggestion of the University of Cumbria. The drawings for her degree show, which reverses the female submissiveness advocated by a religious pamphlet posted through her door, put women in a dominant position while the men are bound and bent in sexual submission. The male figures have been censored but to protect whom? The spam I receive contains more indecency than Ms Gorrill's work. And it is much less interesting because she makes a valid point.

I recently spent a day at a school talking to a succession of English classes about storytelling and writing books. Before doing so I was asked to wear a "health and safety badge" as part of some idiotic government regulation. I didn't wear the badge but the school and pupils seem to have survived.

Later this year when new vetting procedures come in such behaviour will no doubt be read as a sign of paedophilia. From October the Independent Safeguarding Authority will require anyone working with children to join a register at a cost of 63, and submit to ongoing checks, at which point the parent volunteers, the scout masters, the college maths students, the authors, music tutors and children's entertainers will find something else to do with their time. Our children will be less instructed and less rounded and adults will miss the sort of experience I had just a few days ago.

Britishness appears now to include either a failure to apprehend what is in front of our noses, or a degree of suspicion that is tremendously unhealthy. I prefer to think it is the first. We have allowed things to be done in our name that defy common sense and would disturb us if we spent half a moment considering their impact.

Complacency? Well, no. Inattention seems to be a prevailing British trait at the moment, which explains why the institutions that have been exposed these last few months have been allowed to get away with so many irregularities for so long. Orwell reflected on the indifference of the British at the end of the war. "I don't know whether this semi-anaesthesia in which the British people contrive to live is a sign of decadence, as many observers believe, or whether on the other hand it is a kind of instinctive wisdom."

But the British are not stoical, as they were during the war. The aversion to risk is one of the most notable parts of the national character - we believe that it's possible to eliminate all danger by laws and regulations. Official action in all three stories mentioned here was designed to meet the public's desire to be protected from unseen, or poorly assessed threats.

The serene forgetfulness that you imagine passing through the countryside on a beautiful day is an illusion. To be sure many may have this wisdom that Orwell spoke of - the sense that these things pass and it doesn't pay to get too worked up - but the important point which I accept reluctantly is that we are where we are now because of the way we are now. The deterioration of police behaviour, the lunacy of the banking industry, these dodgy MPs and their regime of petty, fearful laws are a product of one or other parts of the British character. These things do not just happen: the responsibility is ours.



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