More decades ago than I care to enumerate, I was a politics student at Liverpool University. They were heady days in more ways than one: psychedelia, Purple Haze, and the Counterculture. Forty-six years on, I’m more Delia Smith, Purple Sage and counterproductive, but one thought among many has remained with me since that time.
It is this: that core Britishers generally don’t do politics. They vote because they think it’s their duty – and occasionally to rid themselves of an abnormally dysfunctional government – but in the sense of polemics, philosophy and debate, on the whole they’d rather not get involved. It’s all vaguely effete and alien, like that moment when the happy-clappy vicar tells you to hug the person in the next pew, and you wish you could die. The Church of England is not a place to express emotions, any more than a bank is the place to pop out a tit and express milk.
I write ‘core’ Britishers, and of course these folks are dying off like in the plague called Old Age. Britain is evolving – and the process has been accelerating ever since that insouciant Sixties decade. As a result, two dayglo extremities of a colour spectrum have been added to the blandness that is Middle England: hard pc feminist Labour at one end, and hard neocon economist Conservative at the other. But between these two there remains, as ever, indifference.
Indifference has three fathers: tradition (upmarket), distraction (middle to downmarket) and desperation (underclass). The first of those three typologies votes out of familial habit, while the other two represent the 40% who don’t vote at all. Two in five: a disgraceful statistic for any healthy democracy. But there I go again, y0u see – writing words like ‘democracy’, ‘underclass’ and ‘statistic’: how unBritish is that?
Stick with me on this, and think on: political philosophy in Britain is essentially seen as foreign. It’s what French Jacobins, German Nazis, Spanish Falangists and Russian Communists got into, and my God did they not learn to regret having done so? I should say so.
Because of this ingrained, cultural belief system, it was crucially important for the Left in Britain to use terms like ‘Fabian’. Foolishly, Oswald Mosley in the 1930s called his organisation the British Fascist Union. Equally stupid was Arthur Scargill’s openly admitted espousal of crypto-Russian collectivism: it gave Margaret Thatcher the side of a barn at which to aim her collaterally damaging musket.
Overall, we British do not like the extreme. We like it even less than political philosophy. Orwell recognised this, and his insight resonates in the title of (for me) easily his best book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The everyday for Brits is infinitely more important than one day. And perhaps that’s the kernel of it: we are justifiably suspicious of inflexible belief in the Utopian.
Applying this rule to our contemporary situation makes for interesting analysis. Neocon Friedmanism is, without any doubt at all, an American import. It is an American interloper in the same way that shock-and-awe in Iraq, gun rampage on campuses, and Ricki Lake are: embraced by the few, but ignored by the majority. So too is Europeanist Social Democratic EU superstate aspiration: ultimately, we don’t get them, and they don’t understand why we won’t join in. We’re very happy on our own thank you very much: in 2012, we love being cosmopolitan, but hate unions where everyone must march in sequence. “I am an individual. My home is my castle. Italian food is marvellous, but I don’t pinch lady’s bottoms”.
All that said, there is one peculiarly British socio-economic tradition which – along with Methodism – had a lasting effect on the politics of the United Kingdom: and that is the idea of mutuality. What in America was adopted as the Savings & Loan had, since the late eighteenth century in Britain, been developing as the mutual society in which all those saving were Members, and all those at the top were answerable to them.
It’s a movement that, in the best tradition of British culture, is almost apolitical. Nobody saw the Building Societies, for instance, as Tolpuddle Trade Unionist martyrs and activists: rather, they were philanthropic groups helping people to become nice middle-class property owners. They were like the cooperative movement, minus only the banners and the marches at Whitsuntide. Nobody used that nasty foreign word collectivist. Why should they? This was a form of mutual help on the road to community and familial independence. It is, at heart, what the Capra classic A Wonderful Life was about.
Not only do I think we should be proud of this very Anglo-Saxon evolution, I think we should recognise our mistake in relegating it to a minor role in our economies. Practically every experiment in converting mutuals into plcs led to disasters that became very expensive for taxpayers.
For me, the mutual idea is an essential feather in the capitalist cap. We are ridiculously overdependent on the vagaries and insane bonfires of bourses and megabanks for our seed capital. Community councils, mutual bodies and private philanthropists need to be a bigger part of the equation that dictates capital + shared risk + creativity = cultural and economic growth.
There…you see? A penultimate paragraph devoid of the word ‘political’. I am, to be sure, British through and through.