Not Saussure

October 4, 2006

But we don’t do that sort of thing here. We’re British.

Filed under: Abortion, Blogroll, civil liberties, EU, Foreigners, UK, usa — notsaussure @ 1:58 pm

Via Chicken Yoghurt, a discussion by Donald, of The Jarndyce Blog, a piece in The Sharpener called Talk amongst yourselves, we couldn’t possibly comment about why abortion’s a non-issue in British politics.

One word absolutely not on the lips of political hacks, not even Tory political hacks, is… Abortion. Not this week, not any week. It’s impolite conversation inside the beltway.

But a post here last year (picked apart here) attracted over 250 comments. Just publishing the word is pure Google-juice. Everyone in the real world has an opinion, so why does nobody in political Britain want to discuss abortion in public? It can’t be that 186,274 (2001 data; pdf) annual terminations don’t warrant justification or inquiry.

Donald’s got various explanations, but I prefer mine. It’s partly, to my mind, that we have the horrible example of America before us; I’m willing to bet good money that an inordinate number of the 250 comments came from the USA, even allowing for the fact most comments to a British blog will have come from Anglophone countries rather than the rest of the world. We’ve seen what happens when people start politicising abortion and we don’t want that sort of thing here, thank you very much.

Donald says,

You could play the God card; but there’s no debating with faith, and polite society considers the faithful ever so slightly simple.

but I don’t think it’s that. I’d hesitate to call, for example, my late wife’s mother ‘simple’ because of her at times ferociously devout Catholicism, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else so to do; one of the few times, however, I’ve seen her really angry was back in the general election of 2001 when, it may be recalled, the ProLife Alliance wanted to show pictures of aborted foetuses as part of its election broadcasts. Kit’s attitude was that, much as she disapproves of abortion, she accepted that other people don’t necessarily share her religious views and no one’s got any business, as far as she’s concerned, trying to force what are ultimately religious views on someone else, particularly when they’re trying to make what must always be a very difficult decision.

And, as she said, she was going to vote Conservative come what may, and in the unlikely event that the Labour candidate in her constituency said he wanted to ban abortion, that wouldn’t make any difference to her vote. Even if she’d lived in neighbouring Hull North, she wouldn’t have voted for Kevin McNamara, despite the fact he was a family friend and my wife’s godfather. And, I take it, far more people voted my wife’s ‘uncle Kevin’ despite, rather than because of, his views on abortion and gay marriage.

That, I think, is a pretty common attitude here, as opposed to the States. We tend, possibly incoherently, to regard some matters as being people’s private rather than public business. The way I see it is that once a girlfriend of mine found she was pregnant (health note: condoms and baby-oil are a potentially disastrous combination — trust me on this); obviously I had a view on whether she should have an abortion or not, but both us knew it was, ultimately, her decision and, ultimately, I could do was love and support her as best I could, whatever she decided.

That’s not political, for heaven’s sake — it’s decent, gentlemanly behaviour, at least as far as I’m concerned. There’s no way on God’s earth I’d have tried either to force her to have an abortion against her will or to use the law to stop her from so doing, because I’m not a complete shit. And if I, who had more right to a say in the matter than did most people, wouldn’t try to impose my views on her, then I’m buggered if I’d have let anyone else stick their nose into what was really her and my business.

I once discussed this, in general terms, with a wise old American judge. We were talking about why Americans are so litigious and religious as compared with most other folks, and why they get so worked up about what’re now called ‘culture wars’.

His theory, which quite impressed me, was that America is a national of comparatively recent immigrants. Consequently, people arrived there knowing how things were done back home — and possibly they’d left because they didn’t like that at all — but with no real way of knowing how things were done in their new country. And neither did anyone else, since they were in — if not just arrived on — pretty much the same boat. It’s all very well for folks to talk about how they did things back in England, but what’s that to folks who’ve come, or whose parents came, from Ireland or Poland or Italy or Germany or Mexico or wherever?

Consequently, reckoned the judge, people naturally turned both to their religious groups, as a way of meeting like-minded people — who spoke their language, for one thing — who’d already established themselves in the new country for guidance on how things were done in the US and, if necessary, to the courts and laws for mediation. In old countries, he said, people know — because they’ve been born and brought up there — what’s the done thing (or the somewhat different things that comme il faut, if you happen to have been born and brought up in France) even if they don’t like it and have common ground from which to start negotiating and arguing.

In America you never had that and kept on having to try to start from scratch, frequently mediated by politicians who, of course, needed to keep particular local groups happy in order to further their political and personal ambitions. Consequently people were, and are, frequently at loggerheads over both first principles and the boundaries of debate that are taken for granted in most other places.

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  1. I’ve made similar observations regarding the different esteem to which national symbols are held between the old and new worlds. In the US it’s a symbol of unity in a land with little, in Latin america it’s a symbol of a fight against oppresssion (though you’d have thought at some point most would understand that a tsar is often replaced with a tsar by any other name).
    Here symbols of the nation state often represent the erosion of individual liberties in favour of the state (err, John Reid anyone?).
    One of the reasons why I think the St George flag is replacing the Union Flag in the hearts of the people, its a dangerous thing for politicians to purloin.
    Of course no had and fast rules, witness the surge in poularity recently og the german flag, a resurgence of national identity with strictly samll n’s ad i’s.
    ultimately meaning I’ve blithered off somewhere else entirely, apologies.

    Perhaps with abortion the difference is some subjects just remain largely taboo. Americans like to talk loudly, we clear our throats politley and suggest a pint/buttered scones (delete as appropriate)

    Comment by piers — October 4, 2006 @ 4:27 pm

  2. […] There is an interesting response at Not Saussure to an article discussing why abortion is a political non issue in the UK. […]

    Pingback by Definition Britain » Blog Archive » Abort — October 4, 2006 @ 7:37 pm

  3. […] Recently I wrote about the differences between British and American attitudes to abortion and why it’s so contentious an issue there and not here. We had another example of that with their I Can’t Believe It’s Not™ Torture Bill, which prompted Niall Feguson, of all people, to meditate in the Sunday Telegraph, of all places, on ‘the feeling that so many Europeans get as it suddenly dawns on them that American conservatism is different’. […]

    Pingback by Divided by a common language « Not Saussure — October 6, 2006 @ 6:43 pm

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