Walking out of Liverpool Street station in London recently, I gazed at the brass monument to the Kindertransport, commemorating the events whereby 10,000 European Jewish children were rescued from near certain death at the hands of the Nazis and taken into homes in Britain just before WWII. I felt proud to be British looking at the touching statue of refugee children, marking where they arrived in safety at this station after a long perilous journey.
I’m not feeling very proud of Britain right now
In contrast, I haven’t felt very proud lately of being British, for the way we have behaved in such a small minded insular way to Brexit. And especially because of how it seems to have encouraged in some of us, baser instincts of fear, prejudice and sometimes, outright racism. This is not confined to Britain of course. Otto Scharmer in his recent One World, Two Social Fields, Huff Po article, has called this kind of closing off, a social field of absencing, with the qualities of prejudice (closing the mind), anger, blame (closing the heart) and fear (closing the will), as opposed to what he terms a socio-emotional field of presencing.
I’ve just written a book where one of the main points is how liberals and post traditional Brits could actually come to feel proud of being British. So ok, that’s a little problematic right now, but I am convinced that a deeper knowledge of our shared story as a country is more valuable than ever: the many centuries of struggles and setbacks and the incremental gaining of rights, dignities and freedoms. What we don’t value, we are in danger of losing.
On the more positive side, when Sadiq Khan was recently elected Mayor of London, the world press made a huge thing of his being a Muslim. But for myself and many people here who voted for him, we were initially surprised by all the fuss. We weren’t focussed on his ethnicity and weren’t particularly swayed by what religion he adhered to, or didn’t; it was just which candidate we felt was best for the job. That was the kind of understated British value that I am referring to – which is easily overlooked – and which we are in danger of losing.
Remembering Our Human Values
Lord Jonathan Sacks, former British Chief Rabbi, a renowned philosopher and theologian who I greatly respect, wrote movingly about what Britain has represented to Jews. He said (and this was in 2006 in an anthology commissioned by Gordon Brown about what being British might mean) that Jews knew tolerance when they saw it in Britain and they recognised that their lives and those of their yet unborn grandchildren, depended on it.
‘For Jews, Britain epitomised a deep-down decency, a refusal to let hate be the final word, a residual, understated, yet unshakeable, humanity. For many years I did not know how rare this was and is.’
Jonathan Sacks is not blind to anti semitism and is aware of over romanticisation; he notes the prejudice including the anti-semitism which could be heard at dinner tables or in pubs in Britain, yet he notes that it wasn’t heard in public discourse.
‘Political parties did not win elections by campaigning against immigrants or minorities. England lacked a rhetoric of hate. That was the difference and it was all the difference. Somehow the body politic in England has built up an immunity to the darker forces of human nature. I say this because we are in danger of forgetting it, and what a nation forgets, it loses…….. Why, when a whole continent from Paris to Moscow was convulsed by die Judenfrage, the Jewish question, was Britain – not quite, but almost, alone – immune?’
Yet clearly at the moment, we are in great danger of losing this ‘immunity to the darker forces of human nature’ which Sacks refers to, and seriously degrading our public discourse.
We can’t Outsource our Memory & Conscience
To continue in the same vein, I was very pleased to hear that Lord Sacks had been awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize, and his acceptance speech is a powerful overview of the deep challenges we currently face in British and Western society. I want to give a longer quote from this speech since, in my opinion, what Sacks says is crucially important.
“I want to look at one phenomenon that has shaped the West, leading it at first to greatness, but now to crisis. It can be summed up in one word: outsourcing. On the face of it, nothing could be more innocent or productive. It’s the basis of the modern economy. …..The question is: are there limits? Are there things we can’t or shouldn’t outsource?
There is, though, one form of outsourcing that tends to be little noticed: the outsourcing of memory. Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories,… while our memories, and those of our children have got smaller and smaller. In fact, why bother to remember anything these days if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia?
But here, I think, we made a mistake. We confused history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.
Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.
That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want. It’s what Adam Smith signalled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. …And Jefferson when he said, ‘A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.’ At some point the West abandoned this belief.”
We British could do well to ponder on these points and to reclaim our story. There are deep embedded values from our long national story which are very much worth remembering and integrating. We can’t outsource conscience and moral responsibility. It’s not his-story, it’s our story, my story. And it matters; it really, really matters.
Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available: http://www.chrisparishwriter.com/book/being-british