Friday, March 30, 2007

Good people have become a defeated class in Blair's Britain

"...Such a development could not have taken place overnight. My wife, who is French, was attracted to the culture of this country because, as late as 1979 or 1980, the people, including administrators in hospitals, were obviously upright, whatever else their failings might have been. A quarter of a century later, all that has changed; deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying have become the ruling characteristics of the British people, or at least those of them who are in charge of something. The old virtues - stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth - can still be found, but only in people who are of no importance, at least in the public administration. If I may put it very strongly, good people are like a defeated class in this country.

How has this all happened? I think that the spread of tertiary education has had quite a lot to do with it. First, it created a very large class of people who had to be found white collar jobs, since there is nothing more dangerous for a society's stability than a large number of unemployed people who consider themselves to be intellectuals. The obvious way to absorb such people was the expansion of the public service.

Second, the expansion of tertiary education resulted in the over-intellectualisation of society. Unfortunately, the average or median level of intellectual activity was very poor, but it meant that the concept of virtue in society changed. Henceforth, virtue was not the exercise of discipline, self-control or benevolence for the sake of others, but the expression of the right opinions of the moment. This could not have been better illustrated than in the case of the Conservative front-bencher, a former colonel who was very much liked and respected by his black soldiers, several of whom he promoted, and who defended him vigorously, who said something marginally unacceptable (its truth or untruth was not important), and had to be sacked as a consequence. Sticks and stones may not break my bones, but words will always hurt me.

When words become the test of virtue, they also become the masks of vice. That is why sanctimony and ruthless self-interest are such powerful allies."