16 March 2008

Here's a series of mildly connected events. Earlier this month, there was much upset over news that RAF Wittering personnel have been advised not to wear uniforms in public because it makes them a target for abuse around Peterborough. A spokesperson pre-empted the anti-immigration crowd with assurances that the abuse came from a "cross-section" of the community. So, there's at least parity of abusiveness. Partly this is fallout from the Iraq war. Tomorrow a study is due to be presented to the PM, suggesting ways of improving the relationship between the public and the military. As one op-ed put it, "If we abuse those who would lay down their lives for us, we are not a society at all".

Last Tuesday Lord Goldsmith delivered a report on citizenship that included suggestions for making people more British. One idea is to create a rite of passage ceremony to mark the end of citizenship education at school. Another is a new national public holiday "to celebrate the bond of shared citizenship".

Also tomorrow, the ATL teachers' union will debate whether the culture of celebrity is promoting misguided aspirations among British pupils. Certainly we're collectively granting celebrities a lot of our attention. We came through reality TV, talent shows and social media to find ourselves facing a surplus: the overproduction of celebrities. It's probably having a deflationary effect on the value of our regard. More immediately, being in thrall to celebrity has made it less clear what we value as a society - other than SMS votes. It might make sense to celebrate people who display virtue or a practised excellence. But there's something unegalitarian about that, isn't there?

So, what values do we elevate? What do we celebrate together as a society? And whatever happened to that fourth plinth in Trafalgar - no more heroes?


  1. The editorial was good. It shouldn't need saying, but it does, and nice too that it ran in the Independent.

    I think there was already a lot of "cynical pacificism" around before the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars didn't so much cause it as bring it to the surface.

    The nice thing about the cynical pacifism is it actually gives us a bonus sense of moral superiority. Rather than worrying about whether we should feel bad because we never enlisted and risked our lives for our country, we can actually look down on those who did.

    I'm skeptical about the effectiveness of government plans to make people feel more British or improve relations between the military and civilians. There's a temptation here to only want to think/talk about problems if they have solutions, which leads people to either a) deny that there really is a problem, or b) propose thoroughly implausible solutions.

    Also, watch this:


  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the link and comments.

    I had wanted to include another article I'd read ages ago (but couldn't find), which suggested that the way the war had been conducted - justification, execution, aftermath - had somehow served to drain authority from the whole of the British establishment by association. The author suggested this extended to the police and even teachers as figures of authority. It's not a claim you'd want to try and prove and it's overdone, but I think there's something valuable in the implied model of trickle-down illegitimacy.

    Ah, but I couldn't find the article.

    So instead, I thought I'd link to this Economist article - because it looks forward to when politics in the US will depend less heavily on a binary established in 1968. I was reminded of it by the hippies.