We should be suspicious of anything that tries to wrap itself in the Union Flag. Do you remember the episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ in which the government blackmails Eurocrats into renaming our ‘Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tube’ as the ‘British Sausage’?
Similarly in 2014 the Coalition Government sought to define ‘British Values.’ These were designed to reunify the country after New Labour’s initiatives of mass immigration and regionalisation, both of which pose threats to our collective identity. However there has been no serious attempt to reverse either of them.
The Values listed were ‘Democracy, Rule of Law, Respect and Tolerance, Individual Liberty,’ to be enforced by a curriculum rollout in schools. This wishful mishmosh works about as well as France’s 1793 ‘Cult of Reason’ promoted in her recently desecrated churches. Abstract principles do not hold a nation together, especially when they are ill-defined and its rulers obviously do not believe them.
Let’s start with ‘Democracy.’ We are not like ancient Athens, whose male citizens decided policy directly. We elect representatives by a system so flawed that in 2011 we had a referendum about the Alternative Vote. The two main political parties promptly colluded in a campaign against it, since the status quo suited them better; they got what they wanted.
Underpinning democratic debate is the acceptance by all sides to be bound by the outcome. In 2016 the Brexit vote exploded that convention, all the more cataclysmically because in formally undertaking to implement the result the political parties had escalated the referendum’s status to that of a plebiscite. A furious Establishment, from the Palace of Westminster down to its media heralds and jesters, has combined to subvert it ever since.
In any case democracy in the sense of universal adult suffrage is less than a century old. The extension in the UK of the vote to all males in 1918 must have been at least partly influenced by the fear of revolution after a war that killed 880,000 servicemen and an estimated 600,000 civilians, and with the example of Russia for our ruling class to consider.
Since the State won’t listen and increasingly won’t even let us talk to each other on social media, it is hardly surprising that people are ignoring it in turn. Greta Thunberg has explained that she is not an expert but an ‘activist’, and there are so many like her in different fields; all you need is a bad idea and lots of passion. This exposes another weakness in democracy: the power of the demagogue (Demosthenes nearly persuaded Athens to its destruction by the Macedonians) and modern propaganda - let the people vote how they will, provided you can influence how they think.
Even otherwise clever and well-informed people can be blinded by ideological commitment, so that the awful collateral damage caused by the IDF’s attacks on Hamas is being mistermed ‘genocide’, which was the unequivocally stated plan of Hamas’ 1988 Covenant not just for Israel but every last Jew; their 2017 version is more media-savvy but their underlying intent is unchanged, as the events of October 7 have shown.
Civilised restraint in Britain is breaking down. When the free exchange of ideas is persecuted even in universities, diversity turns from a claimed strength to a clear challenge, particularly when some ideologues - from world-savers to soul-savers - are absolutist and believe they have a higher authority than the secular State to sanction property destruction and violence against persons. So much for ‘Respect and Tolerance.’
If Robin Dunbar is right the natural limit on a community’s size is 150; to keep Britain’s 67 million together needs constant maintenance by means of myths, history and symbols. It took centuries and much blood to make an alloy of the disparate communities of the United Kingdom. Yet already there are fracture lines in the nation; New labour’s devolutions have lit the fires of petty nationalism again; and now we have a significant number of inhabitants with alternative, strongly held beliefs and supranational allegiances. How do we prevent disintegration?
Compared to much of the rest of the world postwar Britain has been like a sunlit clearing in the middle of a dark forest inhabited by monsters. Surely Douglas Murray is right in saying that we are in a fight for survival and that if the State persists in neglecting the people’s security then we shall end up with a genuinely nasty administration or the anarchy of self-appointed vigilantism. This is the Rule of Law we need, rather than smashing in the doors of (safely minor) bloggers; but then, every country needs the rule of law; that is not a definitive British characteristic.
Our greatest ‘British Value’, personal freedom, is not so much a value as a habit. If our history were to be taught in school as illustrating a theme, the leitmotif would be resistance to overweening arbitrary power. Little of Magna Carta remains in force yet it set a precedent: the King’s will was not the whole of the law. It was a lesson forgotten when the Stuart monarchy tried to enforce Anglicanism on Catholics, Scots Presbyterians and Dissenters; forgotten again when Cromwell imposed Puritanism on the people (we really don’t need another lot of tyrannical black-clad god-botherers, though we seem set to have them); or scientific experts confining us to our homes by order of the Committee of Public Safety - how easily did our freedom evaporate a couple of years ago!
It is time - it is long past time - for the State to exercise muscular liberalism, that balance of official self-limitation with restraint on popular inciters and oppressors; that inch of freedom between ‘must’ and ‘mustn’t.’ Peace depends in part on not resolving certain issues and on restraining those who are keen to join battle about them. Often it is not convictions that need enforcement, but the lack of them. Fervently held political and religious beliefs would turn Paradise into a wasteland; our answer to zealots must be ‘you may possibly be right, but can we decide that later and get along together for now?’
JS Mill said that freedom of speech was possible only in societies that had attained a certain level of development. If we lose the capacity to consider alternatives and peacefully suspend judgment or ‘agree to disagree’ then we must resign ourselves to sliding back to an authoritarian and censorious State; one that will make serious errors because those who could warn it are muzzled; one that may aready have done so in the fields of climate change and public health.
Dissenters and protesters, yes; rioters and rabble-rousers, no. Let us see if our beleaguered police and security apparatus can strike the vital balance this Remembrance weekend.
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