OPINION: Dull, directionless Britain is the victim of crowd cover.

Somewhere among the last 48 hours, I read an interesting article within which a particular phrase resonated: ‘teaching children to think for themselves’. When I was at Grammar School in the early and mid 1960s, there was what seemed to me at the time a kind of oil-and-water mix of fairly harsh discipline and lessons in initiative. Being a precocious know-all at the time, it became part of my stock line in satire that this was contradictory and hypocritical.

It wasn’t of course: Stand Grammar School – and yes, it did have Headmaster-driven pretensions of public schoolness – was in many ways a model of how to teach self-respect – from which would come high self-esteem, and thus the confidence to challenge shibboleths. And although the school had some quite appalling sadists among its teaching staff, the vast majority of the ‘screws’ (as we came to call them) had that thing so obviously missing from social professions today: a Calling.

Failing to think for yourself was, looking back, the thing most severely punished. The ‘beak’ Austin Williamson cracked down hard on ‘drainpipe’ trousers, long hair and crowd indiscipline because his goal was to create leaders, not collaborators and followers. Seen from the perspective of 2010, it is curious that while the rebellious students he helped create would have earned his disapproval, he would I suspect have disapproved of – and been horrified by – the unwise crowd consensus that has dominated our culture since the start of the 1980s.

The weekend Hippies we all became rebelled against discipline….only later to discover that those reserves of self-discipline upon which we had to call had been created by school lessons – many of which took place outside the formality of the classroom. As the 1970s progressed, the desire to do something original in the advertising profession led me away from the more conformist JWT Establishment agency, and towards the rule-breakers at CDP. By the beginning of the 1990s, the ability to think beyond peer-pressure had enabled me to reject both distributionist socialism and naively greedy Thatcherism.

Myself and millions of others refused to sign up, in turn, for most or all of Foot, Thatcher, Blair, Brown or Clegg. As time has gone on (and on and on and on) we also look on horrified at the mob madness of everything from pc to Britain’s Got Talent. Does this make us cynics? I think not: it makes us people capable of thinking for ourselves.

Over the last thirty years, kids have had to get this capability from their parents and wider family, from the odd exceptional teacher – or from the genetically-wired individual will that seeks always to observe, “No amount of pressure will convince me that this turd is putty – and thus good for the stability of my windows”. But as parenting too has become either clueless or itself infected by crowd correctness, the positive values of self-formed opinion and discernment of character have been increasingly watered down. Without this process, if I’m being honest here, Lord Mandelson would never have got beyond a backroom job at Labour HQ.

The crushing pressure of tightly-packed crowds, plus an inability to spot phoneys and false conclusions, are the two base requirements for the ultimate success of fascism. At present, the UK shows symptoms of it that are relatively benign: the odd process of being beguiled by a twister like Blair, the bizarre belief that an obese faker might be bulimic, misplaced sympathy for a disabled gargoyle, and the inability to say to a talent-show contestant, “You can’t sing – go away now and get a proper job”.

But in the economic sphere for one, the signs are rather more worrying: the inability to interrogate drivel, the constant driving need to believe good news, and the neurotic daily changes of opinion by commentators and consumers…..these are doomed to lead to misfortune for rather more people than should be the case.

In the media for another, credence is given to tramline thinking and dangerously censorious ideas about debate. A whole programme, Question Time, is taken over by clones and drones lacking all the necessary skills to unmask Nick Griffiths in a democratically convincing manner. The BBC’s business news slavishly follows Downing Street fantasies about bank stability and economic growth. A documentary about the formation of the current Coalition allows half a dozen provably mendacious statements to stand unopposed on the grounds of ‘objectivity’. And the attempts of both myself and many others to draw attention to the takeover of a once great newspaper by the Goon dragoons of Balls, Hamas and Harman fall on very stony ground.

Superficial and narrowly administered education is by far the biggest culprit in this creeping progress of acquiescence in the face of polemic bullying. Some on the Right see this as conspiracy, but I don’t: as usual for me, it’s simply a clear case of fluffy incompetence. Some kids rise above it, but most don’t. The teacher-quality fudge remains the Slog’s biggest criticism of Gove’s education proposals, but it may well be that some toning down has been required in the light of LibDem sensibilities. Either way, if we are to survive as a creative nation, this must change – and change quickly. Without that, our survival must be severely in doubt.

What do I mean by ‘survival’? Just this: the retention of enough liberties to ensure that any and all Sun-round-the-Earth dogma is opposed by enough individuals to stop it dead; and willingness to accept radical econo-fiscal change in the face of controlling criticism right across the spectrum from academic rigidity to free-market self interest.

Thinking for yourself rather than of yourself is the only way the Briton will get back to genuine tolerance, breakthrough creativity, and crystal-clear reality. We need these qualities now more than at any time since 1940. And to get it, we need an education system that encourages those who stand out from the crowd.

3 thoughts on “OPINION: Dull, directionless Britain is the victim of crowd cover.

  1. Your piece is almost a philosophical treatise but contains huge amounts of insight. There is definitely a malaise in Britain and I suspect you and I are not the only ones to feel this. The citizenry of this country instinctively know things are very wrong and that is why they are always attracted to slogans like “New” Labour and “Fresh” start. The only problem is that those leaders know that these are only slogans and it is impossible for them to really be new or fresh thus the cynicism with politics.As you pointed out, we have a societal pressure towards conformism. You may be correct in saying that this came from our education system but I suspect it runs deeper than that. I believe its source is a desire after the war to attempt to eradicate the class system. Unlike countries like America, Germany and now China, the British equated success with exploitation of the poorer members of society so we now root for the downfall of those who are successful in our society. The perpetrators of this social movement are the chattering classes, especially the media. Watch or listen to any half serious TV or radio broadcast and try to critically listen to the subtle underlying values being presented and it almost always contains pressure to conform to their version of middle class values.I personally am not particularly optimistic about Britain's future. I don't think as a society we will implode but it is not going to be an exciting society to live in. My wife comes from the People's Republic of China and when I visit that country I experience an excitement and dynamic that the British can only dream of, this despite the Chinese Confucian pressure to conform. The modern day Isenbard Brunels of the world are no longer here in the UK and we must get over our antagonistic attitude towards people who live and think outside the box. We are no longer a GREAT nation but we do have the potential to be a great but small nation that allows our peoples to develop to their maximum potential, which would also benefit the population as a whole. If we cannot achieve that then my advice to any young person would be to think about going somewhere where the game is more exciting.

  2. My memory may be playing tricks but I thought I worked on a party political broadcast, cannot remember which colour, in the early 90s that was being put together for Col Dick Pee. I think you may have been involved as you look vaguely familiar (or that may be due to some commercial or other) so were CDP really that far from the establishment?

  3. KitI left CDP in 1981, after Frank Lowe left to set up his own agency.After that, an extended group of nonentities lost the plot, and subsequently sold the agency to Dentsu – something of a Nazi-Soviet pact, I'm afraid. CDP was always VERY close to the political Establishment, but a renegade in the marcoms sector.Throughout a long and not entirely distinguished career, I did at least stick to my conviction never to have any involvement with PPBs or political Parties. I am implacably opposed to all political advertising. By the early 1990s I was labouring under the title of Deputy Chairman at Bates, so it's unlikely I was involved in the project you mention. But being an incorrigible tart in most other respects, it's quite likely you came across me in one guise, watering hole, madcap scheme or another.JW

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