Not Saussure

January 13, 2007

National Service and Britishness

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 1:40 pm

Via Tim Worstall, who is a tad irritated by it, an article of spectacular fatuity, even by their high standards, from Comment is Free, by one Josh Freedman Berthoud, advocating compulsory national community service. Other than removing the most severe non-custodial sentence from the courts’ range of sanctions, what’s this supposed to achieve and why?

Well, apparently

My, didn’t Britain argue in 2006! And how British “tolerance” toughened up! No more Mr Nice Guy, oh no. There was the row over the hijab and niqab and demands to conform to “British” norms (though faith schools further entrenched social division). ID cards were championed to protect citizens’ identities (but slammed for curtailing their liberties). We had Islamism and Islamophobia; Eastern Europeans and Western racism; hoodie hugging and snobbish snubbing; gay marriage and gay bashing; multiculturalism versus integration. And now, exhausted, we ask: what can be done for British cohesion in 2007?

Well, I suppose we might ask that. We might ask the exhausted Mr Freedman Berthoud if he wouldn’t like calm down with a relaxing cup of tea and think whether it’s sensible to lump together a number of perceived problems — some perceived primarily by exhausted politicians and febrile columnists rather than by people who’re just getting on with their lives, it has to be said — and then to diagnose them as being the result of a lack of ‘British cohesion’.

However, since we failed so to do, he presses on and leaps to the conclusion that

The trouble is that we have no definable British identity around which to unite.

Ask a silly question, and all that. To my mind, we’ve never really had such a thing, at least in the terms outlined by Mr Freedman Berthoud, and neither have we needed one. There’s never in British history been a set of common institutional experiences everyone’s had that I can think of, any more than there’s been a common set of values everyone’s shared. Can’t be education, obviously, since universal education only came in towards the end of the C19th, and even then there have always been huge differences between the sort of education people from different backgrounds receive. Can’t be religion and it’s certainly not politics, as anyone with a smidgen of knowledge of British history would know.

And, of course, it’s not been ‘national service’ of whatever type, since before conscription in the C20th, the we’ve not had widespread forced labour of any type since the days of the feudal system.

We have, of course, always had arguments about religious differences, foreigners, the behaviour of the great unwashed in general and young people in particular; as the Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale doubtless raised a laugh when he first wandered onstage, in 1600 or so, grumbling that

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting

and that was well before we had a Britain about whose identity to worry.

Mr Freedman Berthoud unwittingly hits the nail on the head, I think, when he writes

there is currently no marker for where this new identity lies. In fact, it has not yet been created. To pluck an identity from the air is futile – not only will it be impossible to agree on a medium, but it will be so abstract as to be unattainable. Instead, it is physical institutions that give individuals a common identity, binding them to the state. Immigrants often claim that the first truly British generation of their family is the one educated here – schools offer a shared experience to all attendees that is, by definition, British.

There’s a fair bit here to unpick, not least the idea that it’s in any way desirable that we should be all be ‘bound to the state’. This is Britain we’re talking about, not Prussia or the Soviet Union.

But the bit that leaps out at me is that if you examine the comments of Mr Freedman Berthoud’s helpful, and doubtless imaginary, ‘native informants’, what they’re actually saying is that the first truly British generation of their family is the one that … err… grew up in Britain, which I sure comes as a great shock to us all. Their idea of what being British is doubtless different from mine, as is mine different from that of Mr Freedman Berthoud, because their experiences and memories, good and bad, differ from mine as do mine from his. That’s only to be expected, because we’re human beings rather than ants or bees. Doesn’t matter in the slightest, as far as I’m concerned. So long as no one else comes along and tries to tell me that I really must do or think, or not do or not think, something or other in order to be British — which I know I am anyway — then it doesn’t really concern me what he thinks or doesn’t think being British is, or how British he feels in the first place.

If he decides to try to mug me, or to start blowing up tube trains, then I will most certainly take exception to his behaviour. But not on the grounds it’s somehow un-British. Come on! I might very well want to know why someone’s so determined to kill his fellow citizens — or, I think, more properly, why he’s decided to blow up people indiscriminately, regardless of their citizenship. What’s he actually trying to achieve and what particular combination of warped forces motivates him? Whatever it is, I doubt it’s that just that he’s feeling insufficiently British.

And this I want to know partly because it’s always best to know the people with whom you’re dealing — so that you’re fighting your real enemy rather than an imaginary version of what he might be like — and partly because it’s always worth considering whether people, no matter how malign, thrive in particular environments that you might want to do something about for other reasons. If the hoodie is trying to mug me to raise money for his drugs habit — and there’s a fair chance that’s what he’s doing — I might well consider what we can do about the criminal drugs trade. If the would-be bomber is in part motivated by grievances about British foreign policy, and if he’s able to operate because a great number of people in his immediate and not so immediate circle share these grievances — as, of course, do many other people who’ve little else in common with him — then I might see this as yet another reason for doing something about a hair-brained foreign adventure. But in neither case would I think that sending both chaps out to paint old ladies’ front rooms for them or organise play groups was an immediate or obvious solution. (Yes, yes, I know that Mohammad Sidique Khan worked as a learning mentor for young children, but the problem clearly was that he did it out of choice and he was properly paid for it; had he done it along with everyone else though compulsion when he was 17 or so, then things would obviously have been very different.)

In short, the article seems perfectly to typify the sort of rationalist solution I was bashing on about the other day. You identify a problem, or, in this case a whole group of them, and decide that in a properly ordered society the problems would never arise in the first place, since such problems only happen because people aren’t thinking and feeling properly. Since man is, in the rationalist view of things, a tabula rasa on which anything can be written by his environment, let us set about building an environment in which everyone will naturally be good. Mr Freedman Berthoud is, admittedly, rather more modest in his ambitions — or possibly wildly over-confident of the effects of his prescription — than were the architects of state socialism in the USSR and elsewhere, who were, I’m sure, perfectly sincere in their belief that a new form of social organisation would remove both people’s need and desire to behave in various undesirable ways.

They did, indeed, manage to achieve a degree of social unity, in that everyone hated it and agreed it didn’t work, but I don’t think that’s quite what he has in mind.


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