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We live in a state of emergency: and we are getting angrier

Britain has lost its identity and its sense of nation, says David Selbourne. The citizen is treated as a mere ‘consumer’, liberty reduced to the ‘freedom to choose’, politicians held in contempt and hostile forces such as Islamism appeased. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

26 March 2008

12:00 AM

26 March 2008

12:00 AM

Britain has lost its identity and its sense of nation, says David Selbourne. The citizen is treated as a mere ‘consumer’, liberty reduced to the ‘freedom to choose’, politicians held in contempt and hostile forces such as Islamism appeased. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

The ills of Western democracies are afflicting the most liberal societies known to history. Among other things, Britain suffers from growing inequality, housing shortage, a falling quality of health provision, rising rates of many types of crime, a failing pedagogy, agricultural impoverishment and a huge scale of ‘consumer debt’. Yet, for many, we are not free enough, being allegedly threatened by encroachments upon our personal liberties, coddled by a ‘nanny state’ and menaced by Orwellian surveillance.

This country is not yet in a ‘bleeding, nay almost dying condition’, as Cromwell described it to the House of Commons in December 1644. But his ‘finding’ that ‘the People [are] dissatisfied in every corner of the Nation’ is as true now as it was in his time; the scale of the exodus from Britain is a measure of it, one of many.

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the complacent to minimise or deny it, Britain is also in poor shape politically. Its parliament is increasingly discredited in public eyes, the independence of its Civil Service has been compromised, its honours system abused, its welfare system exploited, its once-proud system of municipal government reduced to a shadow of its former self, its armed forces weakened and underfunded, and large swathes of its public domain dispersed by privatisation.

A lot of this is owed to ‘Blairism’ and its corruptions of the body politic; much, too, to the previous Conservative period in office. The main parties, reduced in organisation and membership and with their inherited principles in dissolution, have themselves paid a high price in public recoil for what they have done to the country. Yet, compounding their misjudgments, each seeks the same chimerical ‘centre ground’ where stand the idols of Empowerment, Opportunity, Aspiration, Competition, Modernisation, Choice and so forth. It is the ground not of a Normandy beach but of a quagmire in Notting Hill.

In this state of emergency — for it is no less — the awareness that public provision and public service are the twin pillars upon which civil society rests no longer informs party policy. Nor could it, with ‘New’ Labour’s abandonment of its old Nonconformist ethics, and the spirit of traditional conservatism displaced by the value-system of the corner shopkeeper. Lacking a sense of direction as national problems deepen — a dangerous combination — the parties offer the electorate little more than finger-in-the-dyke improvisation, bubble-schemes of redemption and hot air; and in the Tory case, a retreat from reality into the nirvana of the ‘small state’.

Misjudgments about Britain’s condition — that ‘its best days lie ahead’, for example — are part of a wider failure to apprehend the scale and depth of the mess into which all liberal democratic societies are falling. It is a failure of understanding whose roots could not be more profound, a failure which derives from the reduction of the idea of liberty to the ‘freedom to choose’, the reach-me-down sales pitch of the marketeer. In Britain, such low conception of liberty has played havoc with the moral authority of the Conservative tradition as it has with the Labour inheritance. It has also made limitations upon ‘choice’ seem like authoritarian infringements of our ‘human rights’ and of liberty itself.


This mutation has turned the citizen into a mere ‘consumer’ or ‘customer’, made the existence of a ‘free market’ the criterion of whether a true democracy exists, and licensed an ethical free-for-all in freedom’s name. For the ‘right to choose’ has been increasingly applied to moral as well as to material choices. Worse, there is today no alternative set of norms, whether political, cultural or religious, which is of equivalent strength to that of the ‘right to choose’. ‘Free societies’ are therefore under increasingly destructive internal pressures.

In Britain in the mid-17th century, before Cromwell took up the sword, the people were said to be ‘mad with liberty’, as now. He spoke of the ‘carnal confidence’ which many had in ‘misunderstood and misapplied precepts’, as now. Moreover, with Western economies largely driven by ‘consumer spending’ and growth made the measure of national progress, liberal democracies must be regarded as stumbling towards the dark.

It is not only morbidly obese individuals — with bodies described in the US as ‘overloaded’ or ‘out of bounds’ — which require gastric banding and liposuction. It is the ‘free society’ itself. In America, competitive eating for prizes is the consumer’s ‘morality made flesh’; at the World Lobster Eating Championship, held in Kennebunkport, its winner ate 44 lobsters in 12 minutes. It is no ‘epidemic’; rather, a subject for a new John Bunyan, whose time is yet to come.

But this is trivial when set against the political misjudgments that have permitted, and at worst encouraged, the flourishing in ‘market societies’ of ever greater inequality amid greed and plenty. Or, as Cromwell expressed it, ‘If there be any one that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a Commonwealth.’ The ‘first obligation of a Christian government’, declared Dickens in October 1854 in similar spirit, is to ‘secure to the people homes’. The obligation has not been discharged in Britain; in retrospect, the Thatcherite sell-off of council housing was no virtue, political or moral. Likewise, the deformation of the Labour party has left those who used to be called ‘working people’ less protected, despite the minimum wage, than a just society should have allowed.

Indeed, the harms being done by liberal democracies to themselves are now greater than those being caused by foes. Physical self-wounding is on the increase in ‘free societies’. But so, too, is a self-wounding which is political, moral, cultural and economic. For example, the taking of liberties with Western societies by Muslims has been greatly aided not only by the appeasement of Muslim demands — again in the name of liberty itself — but by a seeming will to self-destruction.

In consequence, Islamists have judged liberal democracies to be internally weak, and rightly so. In particular, in its conflicts with the ‘purified’ Wahhabi form of jihadist Islam — no ‘religion of peace’ this — the West is militarily strong but on its many home fronts is daily giving ground.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent intervention upon the issue of Muslim ‘rights’ to religious self-determination in a non-Muslim society was a classic of its kind. Unnoted were the surrenders at its heart. Without dissent, he cited the assertion by the Islamist Tariq Ramadan that sharia law is an ‘expression of the universal principles of Islam’. Universal? The head of the Anglican Church further described sharia, without qualification, as a ‘method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts’, thus acquiescing in Islam’s claim not only to universality but to divine authority and inspiration. A Muslim could wish for no greater abjection in the ‘unbeliever’.

Misjudgments of Islam and this kind of trahison des clercs are historic commonplaces. Even Gibbon thought that the ‘option of submission or battle’, offered by Islam to the non-Muslim, was ‘fair
’; while the chance of conversion to Islam — as an alternative to subjugation or death — he regarded as a sign of ‘clemency’. However, sternness was also once displayed in Britain’s conflicts of faith, and cruelly so in the struggles with ‘Popery’. A Cromwell could even describe ‘Papists’ as ‘strangers to God, and to the works of God, and to spiritual dispensations. We in this land’, he declared to parliament in January 1655, ‘have been otherwise instructed’. In relation to Islam, we have also been ‘otherwise instructed’. But we do not say so.

With such retreats, many from moral cowardice, there has necessarily come lost identity and lost sense of nation. Indeed, in these times of misjudgment, sense of nation is now as if under taboo, to civil society’s peril. Citizenship (of an increasingly identityless country) has also been permitted to signify so little that no polity could cohere on its basis, ‘modernise’ as you may. Moreover, no society can rest, or has ever rested, upon the possession of rights alone, whether ‘human rights’ or other. But in these times of misjudgment, duties, and especially enforceable duties — the duties that bind us — are once more perceived by many as intrusions and impositions upon personal freedom.

In a ‘plural’ society, mere co-existence among its increasingly separate parts is not enough to sustain it. This, too, was once a commonplace political truth. ‘If well cared for’, declared Cromwell in 1657, ‘the interest of the Nation’ was ‘better than any rock to fence men in their other interests’, private interests. In Britain, such ‘interest of the Nation’ has been gradually submerged by, and sold off to, ‘market forces’, subordinated to extra-territorial jurisdiction, and hidden from sight. In this flux, the half-baked policies of today’s main political parties have largely converged, while what Cromwell called the ‘lost honour’ of parliament — with even Mr Speaker (and his wife) accused of malfeasance — has further weakened government itself.

Why? Among other things, because attempts to set the national house in order cannot succeed when the public holds politicians in growing contempt. Those who place their own private and party interests before the public good cannot lay down the law for others. ‘Come, come, we have had enough of this,’ Cromwell told the Rump Parliament in 1653. Today, many millions of discontented British citizens doubtless think the same when they contemplate the state of the nation, the nation for which it is thought to be wrong to care.

And it is here that there is to be found the greatest misjudgment of all: underestimation of the extent and degree of subterranean anger in Britain — or in those who have not yet left it, or who cannot go — over its inequities, its sequestered or flogged-off public institutions, its destructive and self-destructive freedoms and licences, and much more besides.

‘Liberty’ to Cromwell — and we must listen again to this voice — meant ‘rigorous settled obedience to laws that are just’; or, as Burke put it, ‘we must give away some natural liberty to enjoy civil advantages’. ‘Up and be doing!’, said the great Protector in 1643, speaking directly to us now; ‘we must act lively, do it without distraction, neglect no means’; and, going to the heart of today’s confusions also, ‘weak counsels and weak actings undo all’.

Moreover, as the ‘free society’ disintegrates, it is a progressive not a reactionary stance to favour the restoration of the idea of nation, the values and duties of citizenship, the safeguarding of the public domain from the privateer, the elevation of the ethic of public service over private interest and, yes, ID cards too. To hold otherwise is to invite, or incite, the justly angered to find their own ways to a new political settlement in Britain — or to leave it in ever greater droves.


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