Thursday, 1 October 2020

Patriotism, scoundrels, and rule-breakers


In his attempt to explain, during PMs Questions last week, why it was that other countries have both a lower death rate from Covid-19 and fewer restrictions, the PM came up with an absolute classic example of the English exceptionalism which is proving so damaging to the whole of the UK. He said, “Actually, there is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary”. I’m not sure which is worse – the possibility that he actually believes any of this, or the possibility that he knows it to be absolute guff and says it anyway.

It is one of the problems of a certain kind of nationalism that those nationalists have a desperate need to believe that their nation is in some way ‘better’ than other nations; claiming that ‘we’ invented virtually everything of value plays to that. I wouldn’t argue against the proposition that the UK has been the home of people – both native-born and immigrants – who have been responsible for a number of major advances (more than average for a country of its size, even) in a range of fields, including science, technology and political philosophy, but most advances are the result of a process of collaboration and synthesis of work done in many places. Ideas feed off each other. However, conflating the genius of particular individuals who happen to reside in one place with the characteristics of a nation is a nonsense – and a dangerous nonsense at that.

To take one specific of his claim, the idea that a state more than half of whose parliamentarians hold their position due to heredity, religious affiliation, or appointment rather than election, and where a governing party can gain an overall majority on around 30-35% of the vote, can be regarded as the ‘inventor’ of democracy is laughable. At best it requires a strange definition of democracy; at worst it’s a deliberate attempt to mislead.

To turn to the more immediately relevant specific, the idea that ‘the British’ love their freedom so much that they can’t be made to follow rules sounds like an attempt to project his own attitude onto the population at large. He certainly has some difficulty getting his own family and advisors to follow rules, but – despite such application of double standards – most of the population were willing, for an extended period, to follow the rules laid down.

He may, though, have accidentally stumbled upon a key point, even if it isn’t the one he thinks it is. There is indeed a key difference between the UK and most of the rest of Europe, and it’s about social solidarity. One of the key elements in getting a population to follow advice willingly and collectively is that they should believe that it is for the common good. That works better in much of Europe that it does here, because in the UK the Tories (aided and abetted by New Labour) have spent four decades promulgating the idea that there is no ‘common good’. People, they have argued, should put their own interests first and look after themselves rather than expecting the state to look after them. Competition, they have told us, is good – there must always be winners and losers, and the losers have only themselves to blame. The problem is not, as Johnson effectively says, that people in the UK (and he largely means England here, of course) are too fond of their freedom to follow rules, it is that they have been drip fed an ideology (by Johnson and his ilk) which encourages them always to ignore the needs of others and pursue their own selfish interests. Against that background, the surprise is not that some have not been following the rules, but that so many have done so.


Spirit of BME said...

Your points are well made, as the problem of people reaching these shores outside the immigration system ;which demands and acceptance that if you are accepted you must have means to sustain yourself and family, has always caused difficulties.
At the end of the 1930`s pressure was put on the government of the day to accept children fleeing from National Socialist Germany clearly, they had no means to sustain themselves. This was overcome when people who believed in their cause showed their compassion by agreeing to accept them into their homes and pay for their upkeep, without any recourse to the public purse.
Today we have stories from Scotland and England of these poor people living in squalid four stars hotels and in one case being driven to violent actions that resulted in death, with no resolution at hand as you pointed out.
So, where is the compassion that we saw those decades ago, from people who support their cause and offers to get these people into their homes and take care of their needs? Those on big salaries like Senedd members, should be the first in line to step forward, after all there is one member, I know of who owns several properties and another lives on a farm.
By acting this will show not only their compassion, but that politicians can prove they are people of conviction and not peddlers of cheap words.

John Dixon said...

"...stories from Scotland and England of these poor people living in squalid four stars hotels..." Whether these stories are distortion, exaggeration or downright lies I am unable to say (although it's worth noting that the 'newspapers' in which they appear are better known for fiction than for objective reporting); but they are part of the campaign to turn people against all immigrants and refugees on the basis of the alleged treatment of a few. Sadly, it works.

As for the rest of your comment, all I'll say is that I'm not generally over-enamoured with the way in which the idea that people should be treated with humanity is turned back on those who raise it with a demand that they do something themselves rather than us acting collectively through government and its agencies.

Both of the above points serve to reflect what I meant by "... they have been drip fed an ideology ... which encourages them always to ignore the needs of others and pursue their own selfish interests". Again: sadly, it works.