Not Saussure

February 27, 2007

Gordon Brown and National Purpose

Filed under: Philosopy, Politics — notsaussure @ 9:17 pm

Chris Dillow quotes Gordon Brown’s call for a ‘national purpose’

A strong sense of being British helps unite and unify us; it builds stronger social cohesion among communities. We know that other countries have a strong sense of national purpose, even a sense of their own destiny. And so should we. And it helps us deal with issues as varied as what Britain does in Europe; to issues of managed migration and how we better integrate ethnic minorities.

and, quite rightly, counterpoises Michael Oakeshott’s view of government; as Oakeshott says,

The spring of this other disposition in respect of governing and the instruments of government – a conservative disposition – is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensible. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

As Oakeshott goes on to say,

we are not children in statu pupillari but adults who do not consider themselves under any obligation to justify their preferences for making their own choices; and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life. In short, if the man of this disposition is asked: Why ought governments to accept the current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough for him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them. We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them? Is it not (the man of conservative disposition asks) an intelligible task for a government to protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and their wealth in the service of some pet indignation, endeavoring to impose it upon everybody, not by suppressing their activities in favour of others of a similar kind, but by setting a limit to the amount of noise anyone may emit?

Or, as Oakeshott put it elsewhere,

Men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

(From Rationalism and Politics and Other Essays; quoted from Richard Crossman’s (hostile) review of the book.)

In other words, we don’t need ‘a national purpose’ or even, I’d argue, ‘a national identity’ (and, though this isn’t really the topic, I can’t help adding that we certainly don’t need a card to demonstrate it). My purpose, at least in this context, is to get on with my life as seems best to me, and to leave other people alone to do the same. The purpose of government is to leave us all alone to get on with this, stepping in only when we, as individuals, can’t amicably resolve between ourselves the conflicts that’ll inevitably arise from so many people getting on with their own lives. And, when it has to do this, it should do it not by trying to prevent conflicts from ever arising but by setting out the limits to the amount of nuisance we can make of ourselves and then imposing them, impartially.

I greatly distrust this talk of ‘integrating minorities,’ be they ethnic, religious or whatever else. People, in my experience, generally just want to get on with living their lives. They find their own ways of getting on, or not, with the other individuals with whom they come into contact. ‘Communites’ comprise diverse individuals who, if they’ve got any sense, rapidly come to a modus vivendi, putting with each other’s irritating habits and moderating their own. Dr Martin Luther King said,

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me. But it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important

and that seems to, at least to me, what the law really should be concentrating on, not engaging some batty attempt to create a sense of national purpose. The purpose of the government is to enable us peacefully get on with our own lives, not to try to tell us how to live them or, worse, to attempt to direct us all to some common goal.

I have a theory — well, more of a hunch — that some people like talking about abstract ideas such as values and culture and so forth because it’s easier — and frequently raises less awkward questions — than talking about anything concrete like money and how government and councils spend it.

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  1. Sing it from the roof-tops.

    (And no doubt receive an ASBO for doing so.)

    Comment by Larry Teabag — February 28, 2007 @ 2:36 pm

  2. Sense of national purpose is a good thing in itself but not sure it can be legislated for or whipped up by the government because then one suspects it’s motivation.

    Comment by jameshigham — February 28, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

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