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The Wages of Fear

May 31, 2009

Henry Porter – the Guardian’s civil liberties columnist – wrote an article the conclusion of which I agree with – that our passive, complacent nature is encouraging the erosion of our civil liberties (Britain is not radical enough. That is why we’re in trouble). However, the way the argument is constructed and the premises on which it is based give me cause for concern, because although we may have somewhat disenfranchised ourselves, the root cause is not addressed in his piece. This is my response.

“Travelling to Hay-on-Wye last weekend on one of the most beautiful days in recent years, it was difficult to comprehend the disasters that we read about every day. The landscape was resplendent; I passed a fete with several elderly men in Panama hats stooped over cake and plant stands, cyclists, anglers, ramblers in the Golden Valley, people pottering in gardens – it was Britain of a 1950s lithograph with a Morris Minor Traveller somewhere in the foreground, an image that still lurks in our idea of the country and what it stands for.

Granted, things are quite different in the crime hot spots of Peckham, Moss Side and Westminster but it’s worth remembering that a lot of national life is not in upheaval and that most institutions are untouched by scandal.”

Henry Porter seems to harbour a bucolic nostalgia: panama hats, cake and plant stands, cyclists and anglers, Golden Valleys and Morris Minors, all as faded as that 50s lithograph. All very W.I. and doddery vicars, bobbies on their beat and black people a minor novelty to be gawped at by gap-toothed freckled boys in short trousers with a copy of the Beano in one pocket and a catapult in the other.

There is also a rather middle-class, white perspective to all this. How many people of Asian descent were there at Hay? Poles or Romanians? How many Muslims, Palestinians or Africans? In other words, was Hay representative of multi-cultural Britain or are you pining for a Britain as anachronistic as your Morris Minor? It seems very convenient to your argument to dismiss the urban nightmare, but I don’t suppose there were many hoodies in evidence between the stalls and the tea-stands. I live in the country – Devon – and I can’t remember the last time I saw an Asian or a Muslim at our local livestock market, and if I did see one, they were bemused tourists. “…an image that still lurks in our idea of the country and what it stands for”. Not for many of us, Henry. Not any more. This is BNP imagery to a tee – British Empire, steel and golliwogs, naval might and country squires. Time to move on.

All national life is in upheaval, and we do our history an injustice if we fail to recognise how much of what ails us is a direct result of the anxiety we all feel. The causes are several: at no time has change ever been so relentless, pervasive and so bewilderingly fast. We cannot control or resist it, any more than we can understand it, for we are not equipped through education to do so and much change is foisted on us by commercial desires to sell us ever more goods to replace those that are still perfectly serviceable. Economies collapse in weeks, pensions are devalued overnight. Banks can’t be trusted any more than our government.

Jobs, once a lifetime occupation with predictable consequences, now come and go in peripatetic waves, each a diminution of our personal stability and security. National governments are rendered powerless by globalisation, where it becomes clear that nobody really runs UK plc except in a superficial manner predicated more on spin than substance. These factors, and many more (I’m restraining myself because I do love a good list) go against the most basic, if futile, desire to oppose change. Business as usual – the mantra of the reactionary. At no time has it been more evident that the tide cannot be constrained by intent, even as it washes over us in waves whose frequency and height grow daily.

We fear most that we cannot understand, and the world is becoming incomprehensible. So many historic invoices have come due, but we don’t want to pay them. We want more credit and when the plastic won’t suffice we rob the poor and leave them poorer. As the wealth gap grows to obscene proportions, we are further marginalised by threats so great the entire world of human culture is at risk. To claim we are not subject to unprecedented upheaval is wholly unrealistic, for it obscures the underlying fear, the exploitation of which results in ever more legislation created to protect us from the future we cannot comprehend.

We are losing hope, without which the potential of our collective future is reduced from opportunity to threat, and the only possible countervailing force is an education that equips us with the Independence and strength to face the coming storm with some confidence that we will be able to master it by dint of our intelligence. Without that education, the mob will reassert itself, governments will come and go, extremism will rise and order will diminish. In such circumstances, is it any wonder that our civil liberties are being displaced by ever more authoritarian regulation, as our government gears up for the inevitable public disorder, the endless dissatisfaction with our lot, and the global failure to understand why this is happening to us?

“The deterioration of police behaviour, the lunacy of the banking industry, these dodgy MPs and their regime of petty, fearful laws are a product of one or other parts of the British character. These things do not just happen: the responsibility is ours.”

They are not a product of it, but a reflection. These things have always happened: brutal law enforcement (Ireland, Colonies), corrupt government (enclosure, rotten boroughs) and foolish bankers (South Sea Bubble). We ignore the repetition of history at our peril as Santayana made clear. And yes, the responsibility is ours, not for their promulgation, but for our lack of understanding of the part we play in shaping our society. Freedom never came cheap and there are no guarantees it will remain a right or a fixture. But if we are not prepared to fight for it, for that we will be responsible. Use it or lose it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tracy permalink
    June 1, 2009 12:58 pm

    Absolutely right, Graham – I can’t disagree with your general argument – all national life is in upheaval – change takes adjusting to, too many big changes at the same time equals a huge amount of stress (something many organisations don’t seem to take into account when they subject their staff to huge reorganisations). Our automatic reaction to sudden, unlooked for change is either resistance or denial.

    When I lived in Cornwall it was also pretty monochrome, and you wouldn’t believe how openly-racist many of the people I met were! I used to shut them up by pointing out that actually, my little sister is half-Indian.

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