Britain


The EconomistAn Economist reviewer is unimpressed with a book that fails to applaud free migration…

It is possible that Britain will prove unable to cope with greater diversity in the future, but one cannot help noticing that the most diverse part of the country—London, which is less than 50% white British—is also by far the richest. It is also rather livelier than the lily-white counties that surround it.

“Lily-white” is an unpleasant term to use, given its exclusionist associations. It is also wrong. Luton, Chelmsford, Cambridge and Oxford, among others, contain significant ethnic minority populations.

“Livelier”, meanwhile, is baffling. To what does it refer? Underground parties in Shoreditch? Film premieres at the West End? Derby day at Stamford Bridge? Rioting? It is true that London is a site of almost unprecedented cultural variety and change, and if one is attracted by such features one should hasten there, but I detect an implicit scorn for places that do not reflect such diversification, and for people who fail to desire it.

For some, there is comfort in familiarity, and disorientation in environments that change at pace and beyond their control. For some, also, there is pleasure in that which is quiet and unobtrusive rather than loud and kaleidoscopic. If the author wishes to provide a list of the artistic, technological and humanitarian achievements that make the cultural landscape of the capital so blatantly superior to those of the home counties I will be intrigued. Otherwise, I think this is the presumptuous elevation of a prejudice to the level of fact.

There is a strain of attitudinal conservatism among the British peoples that faces attack on two fronts: from the left, where it seen as an obstacle in the path of internationalism, and from the right, where it is viewed as tediously retrograde for its failure to give way to the march of globalisation. Its survival is a feat of quiet obduracy.

National PurposelessnessAccording to the Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society, Britain has lost its status as a “shaper” of events and will now take its place among “third rate nations”. Oh, the shame of it. As awful as it is to lose the dignity and esteem that our nation has acquired from its struggles in Basra and the Helmand Province, we are also forced to join the sad, degrading ranks of miserable little countries like Sweden, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

Sarcasm aside, it would not disappoint me if the extraordinary vote against the Prime Minister’s plans does represent the death of imperial Britain. Our wars not merely been shameful in their initiation but, in many cases, embarrassing in their execution. Not only does being an imperial power tend to entail destructiveness and exploitation – we aren’t any good at it. Joining these “third rate nations”, who are often more prosperous and peaceful than we are, does not sound unattractive.

I have written before of “national purposelessness”: a humble idea that may be what this country needs. It does not imply that we should not pursue specific aims, in our own interests, with others towards mutually worthwhile ends or, indeed, to improve the world. Rather, it “stands against the idea that we need overarching transformative aims to define ourselves by”, and prioritises “containing effects of various purposeful things that have been done”. It need not be a principle for all time, but for a time when Britain faces dysfunction in its state, unhappiness among its people and yet a peculiarly vivid sense of ambition among its elites. It is a time to breathe; to take stock and to appreciate the change that has been taking place around us.

This does not merely apply to things done outside our borders. Some people write as if we are an endlessly adaptable island of boundless inclusivity. James Bloodworth holds that if we do not intervene in Syria we should invite a million refugees to live here. Britain could “easily absorb” them, he says. There are many adjectives one could apply to the introduction of a million people – of very different cultures, between themselves and compared to our own – to our strange, densely populated state with its high unemployment, housing shortages, crowded schools, internal conflict and anger regarding migration levels but “easy” is not one. Inviting the world may solve individual woes but I believe it will ultimately cause problems here without solving them elsewhere. A peaceful and productive Britain can be of more use to the world, in terms of ideas, resources and human capital, than a conflicted and chaotic one.

Bloodworth also writes, lamenting our failure to intervene, that Syrians “will continue to die until the day Bashar al Assad no longer remains in power”. I see. If Assad falls, then, will Sunnis not seek revenge against Alawites? Will Alawites not struggle to retain what has been theirs? Will the different rebel factions not compete for power? Will the Salafists not kill sinners, heretics and Christians? I have not even mentioned the Kurds or Hezbollah. We find it painfully difficult to understand the world, and anything we do to it should proceed from that knowledge.

Baby namesOne of them more intriguing annual data dumps is the Office of National Statistics’ collection of the most popular baby names in England and Wales. There are a lot of interesting and significant trends that one can follow in studying this data but I am going to take the easier and more entertaining route of exploring the more eccentric parental decisions. There one can observe marginal and epiphenomenal trends that might prove illuminating; even if it is simply of how misguided or sadistic mums and dads can be.

  • 18 boys were named Fenton. I hope for their sakes that by the time they’re old enough to go to school their classmates have forgotten that video.
  • 97 girls were lumbered with the name Princess. This disgusts me, though I do have a perverse admiration for the few audacious souls who went a step further and chose Queen.
  • 3 boys were named Jesus. No pressure, lads. No pressure.
  • 4 girls were named Success. And they’d better live up to it or the irony will be both painful and painfully obvious. The 3 girls who were named Testimony, meawhile, have been given cause to avoid criminal proceedings, because if they end up giving statements in court they will have handed headline writers the easiest days of their lives.
  • 26 boys were named Che and 3 were named Fidel. I am no great admirer of either man but it is strange that Che has been more famous. He ran off and got himself killed in a futile rebellion while Fidel has endured over seven decades; seven popes; eleven presidents and hundreds of attempts on his life. For all one may dislike him, that is incredible. Still, nothing endears one to the masses more than premature death.
  • 4 girls were named Boudica and 3 were named Beyonce. One’s name may not define one’s character, that is true, but if you call your child Boudica I suspect they are unlikely to grow up being shy, retiring and bookish. The pleasure one might take in the fact that this grand old name is ahead of Beyonce might be dampened by the fact that Britney and Rihanna are a long way ahead of them.
  • 3 boys were named Archibold and 3 were named Archiebald. To call someone Archibald in 2012 is idiosyncratic. To use such an obscure variant suggests either that one is making a tiresome attempt to signal one’s uniqueness among parents or that one has bad spelling or pronunciation and the resultant mistake somehow never got amended.

These lists always make me regret the loss of the classics. John, Paul and Rebecca have been tumbling down the list, and even Benjamin appears to be declining. At least these publications allows one to observe the names that, though forgotten by the bulk of public, have stubbornly endured. Should I have a son, he is in real danger of being named Ptolemy.

Tony BlairTony Blair has decided to lecture us on the subject of Islamic extremism. I have said this before, perhaps, but can there be too many people who are less qualified to preach on the subject? He plunged us into a conflict that not only left hundreds of thousands dead and crippled but swelled the ranks and ambitions of jihadists. He kept us locked in a partnership with the depraved theocrats of Saudi Arabia. He maintained migration policies that helped dangerous ideologues to set up home in Britain. He is like a man who knocks a hole through a sea wall and then begins to wax lyrical on the dangers of flooding, and without, mind you, the merest hint of shame or regret.

I have often wondered whether Mr. Blair is a flagrant liar or tragically deluded. Whichever the case might be, it allows him to produce stunning elisions. He reels off examples of Islamic authoritarians and militarists worldwide, going so far as to mention “the Mindanao dispute in the Muslim region of the Philippines”, but avoids referencing Saudi Arabia: acritical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups” and the base from which Wahhabism is spread through the means of clerics, textbooks and religious institutions. It was pathetic enough when Blair was mumbling to Paxman that forced amputations were “their culture, their way of life”; now it is clear that he is either struggling to obscure the truth or pathologically indifferent to it.

Blair sees fit to reassure us that jihadist and theocratic perspectives have nothing to do with Islam. “For those of us who have studied it,” he grandly states, “There is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature”. While I have not “studied” Islam, I think it would be presumptuous and condescending to claim that eminent jurists from Alboacen to Al-Qaradawi just plain misunderstood their faith, never mind their innumerable followers. To assert that offensive jihadism, let alone the marriage of religion and the state, has nought to do with “natural” Islam is to demean the intelligence of vast numbers of its scholars and adherents; as well, of course, as our own.

Blair’s argument is that there is a struggle within Islam: one between “Islamists” and “the modern-minded”. There are conflicting trends within Islam, that is true, but to reduce it to a clear distinction between theocrats and secularists is too erect an ideological fantasy. Blair claims that the latter are “potentially the majority”. Well, they are potentially, inasmuch as they could become one in the future, but if he thinks this is liable to happen soon he is looking at a different set of opinion polls from mine. Which “side”, to use his silly term, was secular and liberal in Egypt, or Libya, or Iraq?

Speaking of Iraq, Blair makes a predictable attempt to justify his invasions. These “long and hard conflicts…have made us wary”, he writes, but “disengaging from this struggle won’t bring us peace”. I am not a total absolutist on the principle disengagement but it seems to me that the West’s part in these struggles, from the U.S. financing of the mujahideen to the “coalition of the willing”’s debilitation of an already bruised Iraq, has tended to exacerbate violence. The abandonment of Blair’s brand of internationalism would not assure our security but it would represent a decent start. The exile of the man himself, meanwhile, would be a step towards the renewal of our culture.

SparkI have no desire to comment on the specific processes by which Adebolajo and Adebowale came to be inspired to commit murder on the streets of Woolwich. There is much that is being speculated or that has yet to be said, and one’s conclusions would be necessarily presumptuous. This, of course, has never held back 99% of opinion commentators, and it sometimes does not restrain me, but for now I will observe and attempt to learn.

Still, the commentary is interesting. Jonathan Freedland argues that we should not consider the motives of terrorists as this “cede[s] [them], and violence itself, too much power”. Discussing the motives of particular terrorists may lend them a perverted glamour, yes, but I am all for the study of trends of violence. My general rule is that if people who would otherwise have been expected to be peaceful are blowing themselves or others up, something must have occurred that has provoked such a collective fever, and if it has the potential to cause so much desensitisation it may well have been a regrettable occurrence. Breivik, then, who Freedland mentions, seems to have been a vicious narcissist who found an outlet for his vicious narcissism. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis suddenly felt that causing violence was a sensible life plan, however, suggests that something had happened to their nation that should not have taken place.

Terry Eagleton is right, then, to say that we should not confuse explaining the motivations of criminals with excusing them. Still, one’s interpretations of their motives can lend them too much nobility. If, as some people have argued or implied, the crimes of terrorists were the results of their being blinded by humanitarian outrage over Western foreign policies one might retain more sympathy for them than if they had, say, been inspired by the wish to defend and further the supremacy of Islam. While I have no doubt that Western invasions  incline people towards jihadist beliefs, the fact that terrorism is prevalent in Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines, none of which are known for their imperial atrocities, lead me to think that Islamic supremacism is a hefty factor.

Speaking of Islamic supremacism: Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS, claims that what he calls “the mainstream British Muslim community”, including the Islamic societies that he represents, are “the barrier to extremism”. (His bolding.) He cites “the great work they do”, from donating gifts to children’s hospitals to raising funds for charities. That is great work. Had he mentioned some other acts of Islamic societies, though, a more complicated picture would have emerged. I speak of…

  • Circulating quotes and videos of notorious jihadist ideologues.
  • Holding sermons in which students were told of the virtues of murdering people for changing their religious beliefs and committing violence in order to spread one’s religion.
  • Joining the intimidation of young Muslims held to have been overly licentious.

Mr. Ali is not functioning as a barrier to extremism but as a wall between us and extremism; thus to obscure it.

BenSix’s one-sentence summary of terrorism, then? Don’t be so aggressive as to lead people towards terrorism in their own countries or so tolerant as to allow them to become terrorists in yours.

HedgehogAccording to a report by a coalition of British wildlife organisations, more than half of the animal species of our lands are in decline, and almost a third are strongly declining. Patrick Barkham writes engagingly inside the Guardian of the threat posed to hedgehogs – those redoubtable features of our landscapes – for whom the urbanisation of everything has given rise to homelessness and obsolescence. Our country is not alone in observing the downfall of its wildlife. Today’s Washington Post carries news that frogs, toads and salamanders have been vanishing from across America. It is an exciting time in many children’s lives when, delving through the undergrowth, they meet a frog. Fewer of the next generation, it seems, will have that privilege.

For someone who cares a lot about animal welfare, I am not a big animal lover. We do not, to be quite frank, have a great deal in common and while I wish them well I tend to leave them be. I do think the creatures of our wildlife are important, though, and should be valued. This is partly because they are often sentient beings, and it is cruel to obstruct their path to food and shelter. It is partly due to their effect on us, though.

When I lived in London, a nice feature of my urban life was watching the foxes scurry across the green outside my home. They are not my favourite creatures, and nor are they yours, and their shrieks were alarming for the few moments that I assumed a baby was dying outside, but their presence was oddly soothing. It was not a happy period in my life, yet something about these busy, preoccupied animals helped to give me perspective. Beyond the passing concerns and moods of the day, the world was driving forwards, in all of its blithe boldness and grand animation. If our imperialism drives other creatures out of our societies we risk losing our proportion; that sense of being in a long time and a big place. And, relatedly, we risk starving our imaginations. I am by no means a staunch foe of civilisation: one can track its achievements for our health and comfort and culture in charts and on graphs. Yet we are losing a great deal, and some of it can’t be quantified. We are losing our poetry.

Woolwich car22nd May. No, I do not blame the Muslims. Muslims are our colleagues; our schoolmates; our taxi drivers; our takeaway restaurateurs and our favourite footballers. They tend to have no more of a desire for bloodshed than the Christians, atheists and Jews of our acquaintance, and want nothing more than to work and live in peace.

It is important to say this. As I write, a mosque in Essex has been assaulted by a man bearing a knife and an incendiary weapon, and another in Kent has had a window smashed. Masked nationalists are hurling rocks through Woolwich, which is an odd way to make English people feel safe. The Internet is thick with comments expressing such sentiments such as that Muslims should be killed; British people should arm themselves and Hitler should have targeted members of the Islamic faith. What could be more stupid, and more ugly, and more ironic given that the perpetrators of the atrocity appear to have been motivated at least in part by a deranged perception of collective responsibility.

23rd May. No, I do not blame the Muslims. Yet this does not mean I have no blame for Muslims. I cannot know where these particular men learned their trade. They have, like so many other men of violence, been associated with Anjem Choudary, and how he and his gang have managed to operate in Britain will make for an interesting story when it has all been revealed. As we are told that we live in “harmony” and “unity”, however, I must dissent. When we have numerous well-respected clerics within our borders who pay homage to people who kill British soldiers we are not united. When they defend the imposition of Islamic law we are not together. When they say that non-Muslims deserve “enmity and hatred”, to such an extent that we should not be so much as greeted, there is no fellowship. While such ideas are at large we will not be safe, and while hundreds of Muslim leaders are happy to stand alongside men like this there is no harmony. If people want to help build to an open society, I am all for uniting with them. Unless supremacist and totalistic ideas and ideologues are excluded, though, such efforts will be crippled. For that, one can blame ideologues and their enablers.

24th May. I am sorry that we are forgetting you, Mr. Rigby. For the victim of the most notorious murder in years, you have received little attention yourself. Your death, I think, has been a spark for the powder of the resentment and fears of a confused and conflicted people. I hope your son can grow up in a time where we are more stable, more secure and more sympathetic.

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