Helen Szamuely, editor of the Conservative History Journal, reviews Peter Whittle's new book Being British: What's Wrong With It?
An extraordinary amount of excitement and patriotic fervour was erupting around me as I was reading Peter Whittle’s Being British – What’s Wrong With It?. Team GB (an expression that would have been guaranteed to bring nausea to any right-thinking or, for that matter, left-thinking of the old school person before the vocabulary of Cool Britannia permeated public discourse) was winning medals. All doubts about the pharaonic and overweening arrogance that created the mega-farce of the London Olympics for which we shall be paying for decades to come have been dispelled, at least momentarily. Britain was winning medals and nothing else could possibly matter. One person on another forum jubilantly wrote about the first couple of gold medals “because we are GREAT Britain” as if that was the definition of this country’s greatness.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, what a peculiar position sport occupies in our political and social consciousness. As far as sport is concerned all the virtues, so eloquently extolled by Peter Whittle in his book, that have been abandoned or made to seem embarrassing, become acceptable. People are allowed to wave flags and cheer their country (though some problems arise with people who appear to think that certain sportsmen and women are Scottish if they win and British if they lose). Even the BBC joins in.
There is another difference: for a short time the people who are presented as heroes and role models are not vacuous celebrities but people who have, necessarily, kept the old virtues of hard work, self-discipline and aspiration. This will not last. Soon we shall go back to endless gossip about celebrities, including loutish footballers, and the accepted “virtues” of instant gratification and celebrity for no apparent reason. Of course, Olympic medal winners are not particularly useful as role models in another way: very few people can achieve those standards. If we do want children and young people to aspire to achievement we need to present them with models they can emulate with some hope of success.
The cult of celebrity is not particularly new as a swift reading of past publications can tell us but as Peter Whittle points out, its overwhelming importance that excludes and dismisses the more traditional virtues that allowed people to achieve things in life is something new and immensely harmful to several generations of children in this country who find themselves unable to compete either with their coaevals from other countries or from the private educational sector.
Other problems raised in Being British – What’s Wrong With It? are the deliberate destruction by the self-hating political elite of pride in one’s country and one’s culture, the whole idea of multiculturalism related to it, mass immigration that is both cause and effect of it, the dismissal of working class virtues, their destruction through all the above and the overwhelming and rapacious welfare state, and, above all, complete ignorance of the country’s history. Of these I personally consider the last to be the most important. (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?) Not knowing or understanding the past means an inability to understand the present or to imagine a future. Once or twice I found myself vigorously shaking my head in disagreement. For instance, history tells one that riots were a reasonably frequent part of English life till late in the nineteenth century as was criminality. All too often when Britishness is invoked the reference is to a relatively short period of around 100 – 120 years from around 1820 to the beginning of the Second World War, when the state took over the running of people’s lives, never properly letting go again and stifling all the many very good qualities that those people possessed. Nor am I impressed by any sentimental feeling towards the 1950s. A swift look at the films and books of the period will show a decade of greyness and depression despite the political hype (for how else would one describe Harold Macmillan’s famous comment about never having so good and one of net emigration. People did not simply talk about wishing to leave as they appear to do now according to the author of Being British but actually did so in large numbers.
Nevertheless, the main argument of the books is entirely accurate. Britain has created many good things in the country and in the world though often those who did the creating were the ones who found many of the solid British virtues tiresome and stifling, a curious contradiction noted by George Orwell many years ago, but those achievements have been deliberately denied and belittled by a weird self-hating elite. The people of the country have been deprived of their history, of their pride and self-respect. Given that this is a country and a culture that has been admired and emulated across the world (though not the NHS) it is strange and disturbing to see its denigration at home.
However, Peter Whittle (who is, incidentally, a good friend as well as the Director of the New Culture Forum) sees many causes for hope. The future might be brighter than the immediate past. People seem to be refusing to knuckle under: they remain stubbornly proud of their country and its achievements, they want to learn about its history and they are waking up to the importance and necessity of all that has been taken away from them. Let me recommend this book to anyone who is perturbed by what has been going on and would like to see the hopeful signs to develop into something more lasting.
This review will also appear in the forthcoming Salisbury Review