Thursday, February 09, 2012

The new but not great Britain

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, the British monarch celebrated the 60th anniversary of her reign. The occasion was very low-key—most of the celebrations have been planned for later in the year when the weather is far more agreeable—but many newspapers carried facsimile versions of their editions dated February 6, 1952 when the death of King George VI was announced, along with the proclamation of the 25-year-old Queen, then on a state visit to Kenya.

Leafing through the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an establishment newspaper with a commitment to the Conservative Party, what struck me immediately is the extent to which the British people dress differently today. The crowds 60 years ago wore jackets and ties and their heads were covered with the ubiquitous hat. As I moved through the streets of central London, the men who wore jackets and ties were in a clear minority and the felt hat has more or less disappeared. Indeed, as the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum complained in a letter to a newspaper last week, wearing a tie to work ran the risk of being mistaken for a security guard.

In 60 years Britain has changed unrecognisably. Today’s Britain bears little or no resemblance to the country so lovingly depicted in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse—a Britain we in India loved to hold up as a model. Last month, to cite a random example, at a small dinner in Delhi attended by a member of Her Majesty’s Government the talk inevitable veered to Downton Abbey, a TV serial that has become quite a rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Disagreeing with the overall appreciation of this period drama set in a stately home around the Great War, the Briton said that he had a very different take: “Downton Abbey reinforces the idea of Britain as a class ridden and hierarchical society. It is very removed from the new Britain that we seek to project.”  

An embarrassed silence filled the room. Whatever happened, the Indians in the room silently wondered, to the Britain we knew and admired? Was a new European Union earnestness that is a hallmark of the Scandinavians replacing the old fashioned British irreverence? Indians, at least those of a particular class, have never been uneasy with the British preoccupation with class and the country’s many little snobberies. Indeed, these have fitted in well with our own hierarchical systems. Downton Abbey was well liked because, apart from the sheer majesty of a lavish production, it corresponded to the many little codes governing social behaviour. In India people can still be honest about what they really feel; in Britain, a contemporary version of correctness appears to have killed spontaneity. I guess one of the reasons the gaffe-prone Duke of Edinburgh is regarded as a “national treasure” at 90 is because he is unafraid to speak his mind. There is too much self-censorship in Britain—particularly on subjects connected with class, gender, race and even religion.

In their own way David Cameron and the Church of England epitomise the problem. To his credit, Cameron has contributed immeasurably to making the Conservative Party electable after a long spell in the wilderness during the Blair decade. But this transformation has been achieved, not by convincing a larger section of the electorate that the Tory Party has something meaningful to say, but by making the political culture of conservatism more palatable. It is not the people that has changed and become more appreciative of conservatism but that conservatism has become more people-friendly. This is not necessarily an indictment of Cameron but merely recognition that he is not a conviction politician. “Doing the right thing” is a phrase that is associated with the British Prime Minister. Yet, its meaning is wonderfully negotiable.

It is the moral dimension that has changed dramatically in the past 60 years. Before the Empire became a term of abuse, it was also associated with enterprise and character. The Church of England, often mocked for being the “Tory Party in prayer”, provided a moral backbone to national life. No longer. If there is one institution that is disoriented and in decline, it is the Church of England. It is not merely the fall in congregations that should be of concern. Far more galling is the CoE’s misreading of its role. From a position of social aloofness it now increasingly resembles either a wing of Oxfam or an outpost of Latin American-style Liberation theology. This repositioning in favour of the vulnerable and marginalised has been at the cost of “middle England”. The Bishops in the House of Lords now routinely obstruct all government initiatives to reform the welfare system and make work more rewarding than the dole. Ironically, the only Bishop who sounds authentic is the Uganda-born Archbishop of York, a black man The Spectator has endorsed for promotion to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The most profound change in Elizabethan Britain is the attitude to entrepreneurship and success. Britain is so anxious to redefine itself and craft out a new country that it has made envy a national preoccupation. There are just too many hate figures in Britain: bankers top the list but foreigner fat cats, ‘bosses’, ‘toffs’ and other social caricatures aren’t too far behind.

In 60 years, Britain has moved from stodgy deference to vulgar insolence, as epitomised by last summer’s riots. It is not a happy sight. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, February 9, 2012

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