English Icons: Cliche and innaccuracy

english flagsThe Icons of England initiative looks like yet another attempt to define the undefinable, reducing culture to a set of simplistic cliches. The nominated symbols are a bizarre set, not least because many of them trivially do not qualify. The man who gave his name to the King James Bible was Jame VI of Scotland before he took on the English throne, so it is hard to see how his initiative is quintessentially English. The Spitfire won us the Battle of Britain, and seems to me a British rather than English icon. Likewise with the mini. The FA Cup takes in Welsh teams, and Stonehenge is made from Welsh stone. The Routemaster Bus has (a) just been abolished and (b) surely an icon of London, not England.

I think we have difficulty in defining Englishness precisely because it has for so long acted as a dominant culture. The English are the dominant group in the wider nation of Britain. The history of the country has percieved no cultural antagonist to guard against, and therefore there has been no need to exclude its smaller partners from sharing in the creation of ‘Britain’. Thus anything that we might hold up as an achievement for the English will invariably have hadsome Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Colonial input along the way (e.g. King James Bible, Spitfires) that makes ‘British’ an obviously more accurate description. Perversely, England’s history as the dominant part of Britain means that it cannot claim any icon or innovation as exclusively its own. If we search for icons local to a particular area, we find it difficult to prise ownership of the icons away from the locality (e.g. Routemaster Buses, Angel of the North).

Almost by definition, anything that is specific enough to be English and not British, but general enough to apply to the whole country and not a locality, is going to be an odd beast: The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ might fit the criteria we are looking for, although the flag waving patriotism associated with it alienates as many people as it inspires. It also suggests that we should make our green pleasant land more like an ancient city in the Middle-East, which should, I think, rule it out.

In the delightful Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this observation:

To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

Here in Edinburgh, I do not perceive any less enthusiam for a drink which is an infusion of leaves from a plant grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya… in fact, anywhere but England. Even the trusty old cuppa is more a British than English icon.

The post meridiem counterpart to the cup-of-tea is, of course, the pint-of-beer in a traditional pub. And once again, we find these icons too pervasive throughout the union to be simply ‘English’. In Notes From A Small Island Bryson also points out the physical proximity of France to our shores, something that the British tend to ignore. But visiting a pub in Inverness presents much the same experience as walking into a pub in Dartmouth, both very different to visiting a bar in Cerbourg. Again, ‘The Pub’ is British, not English.

The same logic holds true for fish n’ chip shops. We need not discuss curry.

Once more, the flaw is in the very design of the quest. ‘English’ is not in the same genus as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. By seeking actual things made and found in England we are looking in the wrong place for an English icon. We forget that since England has been a political force for centuries, the English language has persisted and grown in influence. It is the language, not the borders, that we should celebrate. In this sense, our net for English icons may be cast much wider. My nominations: The Gettysburg Address, Waltzing Matilda, The Simpsons… and The Indian Parliament.

Anyone else?

New Year Honours

Happy New Year everyone. Time to announce some additions to the blogroll.

I am delighted that a few high profile sites I read regularly have added this site to their list of recommendations, and I am more than happy to return the favour. Chicken Yoghurt, and fellow Edin-bugger Devil’s Kitchen are pretty prolific hubs, of the type that have to post messages of apology if they do not post anything for more than 24 hours! I am not sure I will find a political soul mate at The Kitchen, but as one of his other endorsements declares: “I disagree with him quite a lot of the time but I actually have to use my brain to articulate why.”.

Stef at Famous for Fifteen Megapixels probably leans more my way. He presents articles that are thoughtful, amusing, or both.

The rise and development of the Internet is a subject that fascinates me. We are still at the beginning of the communication revolution, and those who campaign for good practice and good design deserve particular praise. A List Apart is a “website for people who make websites.” As well as carrying a fantastic design, it is impeccably coded and offers advice on how designers can mirror those traits on their own sites. Website design should be so much more than simply visual design for the screen, and these folk are the best advocates. Elsewhere, the simple site by Clay Shirky carries some concise and perceptive essays on the Internet and the digital revolution.

It is an oversight that two organisations I have collaborated with on a few projects are not present in my associates list. Radio Magnetic are a Glasgow based radio station, perennial nominees for online station of the year awards. Digital technology opens up whole new ways to communicate, for those with the confidence to try.

Radio Magnetic have commissioned a series of podcasts from Scottish artists, giving an insight into the process of creating new music. The FOUND Collective bring us the first podcast in the series. its quite funny.

Teach them nothing but philosophy

The government’s exam regulator declares that the view of history taught by schools is too narrow, with a bias towards the Tudors, and Adolf Hitler. Accompanying these reports comes the inevitable cry from commentators that our children are not being taught properly. Our schools are merely day-centres for the ignorant. We hear that QCA is now developing modules for the DfES that give pupils a broader range.

The array of knowledge we have to cram into the heads of our innocent secondary-school children is vast, and inconveniences such as puberty distract pupils from the task of absorbing even a fraction of it. The problem with human knowledge is that there is an awful lot of it. Many historical facts are disputed, and there are several possible interpretations of those facts we can agree on. Everyone will leave school ignorant of some of the key figures and events that have shaped our world, and there is nothing we can do to change this.

We also hear that children in Key Stage 2 spend vast parts of their time training for tests. This is the most annoying aspect of the report. It is as if exams are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end. Indeed, for an over-worked teacher who is threatened with another Offsted inspect, good test scores for her pupils could be the only thing that matters!

Children should be trained to be philosophers. Philo and sophos, a Love of Knowledge. Perhaps it is not important what facts they know, just that they take an interest in the world around them. They will then seek out knowledge for themselves, naturally. I am paradoxically both ashamed and proud that there exist books on my university reading list that I did not read until after I graduated. Whenever I encounter a word or reference I do not recognise, I look it up and plug the gap. With increased access to the internet, this gets easier to do every day. I find the power of Wikipedia to be breath-taking, and surfing through to random articles is a secret, solitary pleasure. Only last week I found myself immersed in an explanation of the Reimann Hypothesis and its place in the history of mathematics. I only read the biography of Field Marshall Karl Dönitz a few days ago, and I have no recollection of how I came to surf to those pages.

Explain yourself…

Ever since Tory Convert last week attempted to explain her political philosophy, I’ve been mulling over how I would answer the same question.

Then I realised I did not have to, and probably could not do so anyway. Personal philosophies are slippery things that change with every new conversation you have and every article you read. They are also both complicated and subtle (or they should be), and attempting to explain it in a single article is always going to be impossible. You need at least a book.

A cartoon that appeared in The Spectator a couple of months ago has two guys talking at a cocktail party. One says: “I thought I had a book inside me, turns out it was only a blog.” This week I have endured two instances of friends laughing in derison, when they heard I’ve been writing a blog. They assumed I was writing about what I had for dinner, and what I watched on TV. I explained that blogs are scrap-books where people paste their thoughts and findings. Mine is not really a diary, but is becoming a place where I store my own thoughts, and those of others. If anyone asked me to explain my political philosophy, I would give them my URL, and tell them to get reading.

Creative Destruction

Isn’t it funny how everyone, everywhere thinks their culture is under attack, eh? The Islamic States fear the coming of Western Imperialism, while the Christian West complains that their time-honoured traditions are being undermined by an unjustified favouritism to alien minorities. (via CY).

I suggest this is because people know their own culture, with all its nuances and foibles, better than any other (indeed, that’s true almost by definition). They also see competing cultures as monoliths that could not fail to obliterate their own creed and traditions, given half the chance. They see themselves as the quaint corner shop, battling against a rampaging Tesco. For them, the idea of multiculturalism is an anathema. It opens up your precious culture – your soul! – to a barrage of attack.

Andrew Neil has some bad news for these people. Unfortunately, it seems the global economy we have made for ourselves has already ripped open our culture for all to attack. Our way of life is left as bare and as vulnerable to market forces as a independent high-street shop.

This week The Business publishes Neil’s lecture What China can teach the West. He says that Europe, Britain included, has a myopic and stagnant attitude to governance and economics. This will result in Europe being eclipsed by Asia, not only in the realm of economics, but of education and culture too.

It was Neil’s commentary on Hayek’s “evolutionary rationalism” that caught my eye. Institutions, especially governments and economic systems, should not be a product of deliberate design. Instead, systems should follow an evolutionary path, the product of countless human decisions. A free-market, left to its own accord.

Though Hayek clearly preferred evolution and the market to revolution and central planning, he was not a small-c conservative … [He] had no truck with those who sought to preserve the status quo, existing hierarchies or to block change. He supported the market for the very reason that it is disruptive; he relished Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”.

Neil’s implication is that economic and cultural influence are intertwined. Only the briefest glance towards the USA is enough to convince most people on this point. So presumably, these economic ideas can be applied to cultures too. In this sense, we can define multiculturalism as ‘the cultural marketplace’, a willfull encouragement of healthy competition. Give individuals a free set of alternative choices, and they will make their cultural and even ethical decisions. The societies and cultures to which they belong will mutate a little.

Should we be concerned that cultures are open to unfetterted attack from the marketplace? If you are confident in your culture, then there is no need to worry. It is a strong product and the marketplace will reward you with a thousand years of prosperity. But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive. Protectionism and regulation will not work, Hayek would say. Your culture will stagnate and adherents will fall by the wayside.

Concerned that your daughter is offending your family honour by having a boyfriend? (via DK). Well, change your honour system, because it’s not testing well with the target market. Bothered that people are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? Why not simply change the meaning of Christmas, to pull in the faithful? Better still, consider a merger. Take the best bits from both cultures, and sack any superfluous traditions that are holding you back.

Update: Over at The Thames, Jenks considers how our global business culture is developing. Considering how people choose to do business is a welcome bridge between the economic evolution proposed by Hayek, and and the cultural evolution I’ve been pondering here. Meanwhile at Pickled Politics, a debate rages about who, exactly, are the victims in the race riots that have plagued Sydney this week.

Tips for the neo-con project

At last, says Clive Davis, someone has written a fair article on the Neo-conservative ideology. What a shame then, that this fairness does not extend to the other side of the debate.

In The Times, Stephen Pollard of the Centre for the New Europe, discusses how a person’s Left-or-Right political leanings no longer has a bearing on what their stance on British foreign policy will be. As Clive says, its important to point out the humanitarian aspect to neo-con policy… but Pollard comits a dirty sleight-of-hand:

It might, after all, be thought reasonable to identify democracy, freedom and human rights as key components of a left-wing approach. And yet the reaction to the Iraq war shows that this no longer applies

Innocuous, but actually very naughty. The implication, throughout the article, is that only one side of the argument has human rights at heart. The implication is that by questioning the wisdom of war, those on The Left were reverting to an anti-americanism factory default, with support for the Islamo-facists an unwitting side-effect. It also ignores the worry held by many worldwide, that there were other, less noble reasons for war.

The mistake that Stephen Pollard makes, along with countless others on both sides of the debate, is to misunderstand the nature of the argument. It is not a debate about where the concept of human rights falls in our list of global priorities. Mine is an unpopular belief: that there are people in both the pro-war and anti-war camps who had the best interests of the Iraqis, their fellow human beings, at heart when they took their stance.

For me, the debate about the Iraq war was not ideological, but practical. Dictators should be stopped, no question, but my objections were over the best way to achieve that aim. Telling lies over WMD and ignoring our blood-stained hand in the history of the region was not a good footing for a military campaign. If the intervention had been managed more honestly, I may have had a different view… but pencilling a war into your diary for six months hence, then constructing a forty-five minute justification afterwards, is not a viable strategy. Although confident that we would defeat the Saddam regime itself, I was never confident that we would ‘win’ the war in the sense of acheiving our human rights objectives. Indeed, as a piece The Times published earlier this year shows, the soul searching by war hawks who have had second thoughts is almost entirely based on practical considerations. It is not the morality of toppling a dictator that figures, but the manner in which we did it. Suggesting that we could have chosen a different way is libellously painted by the hawks as against human rights.

Pollard also mocks the idea that there is some kind of project for “American global dominion” of which the Iraq war was a part. But I would suggest that it is actually those in the pro-war camp, our own leaders no less, who allow this accusation to flourish. Their pitiful attempts to wish away the WMD transgressions merely fuel the theory of American Imperialism. Certainly it distracts from the humanitarian case for intervention. Despite their reputation for being slick spin-doctors, the neo-conservatives have presented their argument appallingly, in no small part due to the inarticulacy of their chief spokesperson, President Bush. If the neo-cons wish to invoke the name of Henry Jackson and his ideas of principled intervention, they had better damn well demonstrate those principles before they start trying to convince the rest of us. An honest account of how we came to war, and why we previously supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, would be a fine start. Until then, they cannot take the moral high-ground that Stephen Pollard claims for them.

Many unthinkables

I don’t usually read the Daily Mail, but I’m in a pub by myself and there is a copy of the scottish edition on the bar. And there’s more: not only do I not usually buy the Daily Mail, but I don’t usually find myself in agreement with it either.

In the aftermath of the defeat of the 90-day terror bill, the Daily Mail editorial has a stab (definitely the operative word) at criticising Blair’s leadership style. It rightly highlights the inconsistency whereby he cites public opinion as a reason for action – it did not stop the invasion of Iraq. However, I disagree with the paper over the assertion that the Labour MPs have “tasted blood [and] have an appetite for more.” (Surely that is a more likely metaphor for the pro-hunting Tories). Instead, what we are seeing is Tony Blair reaping what he has sown, two years later. He may have survived the Hutton Inquiry, and the decision to go to war in the face of massive opposition and no UN sheild. But the legacy of the bogus WMD-claims is that he now finds that people do not trust him on matters of national security.

Indeed, recent events mean that the police have lost that trust too. After the rightly publicised shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes, and the ridiculous spectacle of an aged Labour party member being arrested under the Terrorism Act for heckling, it is legitimate and patriotic to ask whether we should grant every power the police ask for. Public perception plays a huge part in political decisions.

On the opposite page, Colette Douglas Home has some sane advice: Go against the grain.

Our best chance of beating terror is to hug the Muslim population so close it perceives its first loyalty to be to its fellow Britons – making it impossible for terrorists to infiltrate undetected. We will not do that by plucking people from their midst and effectively interning them.

These are tactics however. What about the moral argument? That habeus corpus should be preserved is a notion that has flown the nest, after MPs agreed that a 28 day sentence without charge is acceptable. A veritable outrage, yet no-one flaps an eyelid in response. The implied argument is that protection of our citizens is ultimately more important than the protection of our civil liberties, our freedom… the same freedom for which we wage the war on terror in the first place.

Freedoms will be destroyed in this so called war on terror. Better they be destroyed by terrorists, as they kill, maim and disrupt, than by the police, our agents of the state. We should play by the rules we have followed for centuries, even if that increases the risk of our being attacked. That is the price we pay for being better than them.

I’m glad to see that this is not such a taboo opinion. Chris at qwghlm makes a similar, difficult point. He links to a supporting post on Where There Are No doors too, which I noticed was also quoted on Tim’s Britblog Roundup, along with this amusing version from Fair Vote Watch:

This lot [militant commenters at Harry’s Place] remember, like to bill themselves as Muscular Liberals. Muscular in the sense of Complan-drinking surrender monkeys that happily ditch 700 years of common law precedent as soon as some twat blows up a bus.


Basra, and the benefit of the doubt

I am in a dilemma, because I don’t know what to think about the happenings in Basra this week. I am also feeling quite frustrated, because I know that whatever I end up thinking, others will say that I am being woefully naive; that I have been conned by the conniving of The Other Side.

First, our attention has been drawn to some deeply suspicious activities carried out by our British forces. Questions are left unanswered: Why were the two SAS soldiers operating in plain clothes? Does that make them illegal combatants? Why did they have so much weaponry in their vehicle? And most worryingly, why did the British bulldoze a police-station in order to liberate these two men?

Despite this, and despite my distrust of the US/UK governments regarding this issue, I am not convinced that British forces are staging flase-flag operations, as some blog sites have been asserting. There are many possible reasons why these soldiers were carrying so much ordinance, other than for the purpose of executing a terrorist attack during the Karbala festival. Crucially, it is not clear to me how a false-flag operation would benefit a government which is politically committed to winning a War on Terror.

On the other hand, I recall just how frustrating it is when people dismiss a suggestion of underhand dealings. Many people simply did not believe that the great British Government would exaggerate or fabricate the reasons for going to war in Iraq. That they are still credulous allows Tony Blair’s misjudgment to go unpunished.

My only offering is one on political discourse. We have to recognise that there are good people in the world who simply give the benefit of the doubt where we do not; and vice-versa. I rarely grant George W Bush this benefit, even when he appears to be up against an Act of God such as Hurricane Katrina. But people with a more conservative outlook will do so. Conversely, I do tend to give George Galloway MP, the benefit of the doubt where others will call him a Ba’athist apologist.

So it is with the Daily Mirror hoax, and the recent events in Basra. Whether you side with the British forces or the citizens of Basra depends not on your analysis of the facts, which are scarce, but on how your political opinions have shaped your world view. Thus we have the camp of people who condemn the Iraqi police-force as an insurgent-riddled lost cause; and the group on the other side who claim that it is the British forces who have been provoking all the troubles.

When commenting on any political issue, the real challenge is to present evidence that convinces people who are not already predisposed to your point of view. You must think like your opponents, and present arguments that will convince them, even if your own threshold has long been surpassed. Shouting “it is a conspiracy by the oil-mongers” does nothing to convince those who genuinely believe that the Iraqi occupation is morally right. By contrast, the Abu Ghraib scandal was one issue that transcended the political divide, and caused journalists like Johann Hari to change their position on the war. The photographs of two sullen SAS soldiers are not such evidence. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing does, I suppose, depend on your point of view.

The Devil's Alternative

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

Has Democracy Failed?

First published in The LIP magazine, February 2003


Democracy should be the champion of diversity. The word conjures in our minds the image of a Greek city state, where each citizen has his own, considered and educated opinion. They talk, they listen, and then they vote. A decision prevails, and we progress.

However, some things have happened to our world over the past thousand years. First, the democratic system has been clogged by the powerful and the ignorant, who are often the same people. The economic system, however amoral, has allowed some people to buy louder opinions. Second, we have created an education system that manages to yield citizens who have no discernable opinions of their own, nor the tools of imagination, inquiry and logic that will allow them to form some.

Now, then, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ has become manifest. Instead of a constant stream of dialogue between people and between groups, we have a partially-elective oligarchy that itself exists only to influence the opinion of a single mind. If that mind is already made up, all dialogue is pointless.

Other opinions are voiced, but even if they are heard the very nature of the system ensures they cannot be heeded. Democracy has switched sides, and instead of being the shield of diversity, it has become the tool of homogenisation. We have a rubbish excuse for democracy, and it is not something to be valued, or fought for.

The politics surrounding the war in Iraq, and the protests against it, illustrate these points—if we have to resort to massive direct action, why have democracy? Our opinions count for nothing, because those who didn’t have an opinion at election time are happy to let the oligarchy think for them now.

What has been forgotten at every level of the debate is that democracy should be more than just voting for a president. ‘Democracy’ in Zimbabwe means just that, and it has created grotesque results. In Iraq we send our brothers and sisters to kill and to die in their thousands, in the name of that same confused ideal. We do not know what we are fighting for, and so our humanity is eroded in the deserts of Arabia.

What is to be done, then? Democracy should be reclaimed. Once again, it should be about engaging in rational, critical and political discourse at every level, not just in Westminster and Washington. Debate should not be run by the national media but by every group of people in the country. The group of souls who label themselves students are not doing this, despite being seeped in the diverse and many subjects they study. This is shameful. Only when democracy has be reclaimed, and real plurality of thought is really considered, can true diversity flourish.

We cannot ask for a simple paradigm shift. Such a change in the way we conduct our lives, our interactions, will take generations. But the seeds must be planted now, for our grandchildren will reap what we sow. This is our project, and with this modest offering it begins.