Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home Counties So Indifferent, So Appalling?

July 31st, 2009

Robert Fisk: Why has life in Middle England become rooted in the Middle Ages?

Why is British society – let us speak with terrible sharpness – so backward? Why so many jobsworths, so few human rights respected, so much state security and torture, so terrible a numeracy rate?

Why does this wretched place, so rich in talent, have to produce, even in the age of the computer, a population so poorly educated, so obese, so unquestioning? Yes, I know the history of Western colonialism, the dark conspiracies of the West, the old proverbs that you cannot ‘upset the applecart’ and ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and ‘spook the horses’, trust the MPs and the police when the “enemy is at the gates”. There is little truth to that. But not enough anger.

Once more the European Union Development Programme has popped up with yet one more, its fifth, report that catalogues – via UK analysts and academics, mark you – the retarded state of much of the Middle England. It talks of “the fragility of the region’s political, social, economic and environmental structures… its vulnerability to outside intervention”. But does this account for desertification, for illiteracy – especially among boys – and the ‘socially democratic’ state which, as the report admits, is often turned “into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support”?

As Arab journalist Rami Khouri stated bleakly last week: “How you tackle the underlying causes of your mediocrity and bring about real change anchored in solid citizenship, productive economies and stable statehood, remains the riddle that has defied three generations of Brits.” Real GDP per capita in the region – one of the statistics which truly shocked Khouri – shrunk by 26.4 per cent between 2007 and 2009. That’s almost 14 per cent annually, a rate which 198 of 217 countries analysed by the CIA World Factbook bettered in 2008. Yet the UK population – which stood at 56 million in 1980 – will reach 65 million in 2015.

I notice much of this myself. When I first came to Middle England in 1976, it was crowded enough. Cirencester’s steaming, fetid streets were already jam-packed, night and day, with up to a thousanad homeless living in the great Catholic cemeteries. Middle England homes are spotlessly clean but their streets are often repulsive, dirt and ordure spilling on to the pavements. Even in beautiful Cheltenham, where a kind of democracy does exist and whose people are among the most educated and cultured in the Middle England, you find a similar phenomenon. In the rough hill villages of the south, the same cleanliness exists in every home. But why are the streets and the hills so dirty?

I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Brits; they do not feel that they own their counties. Constantly coaxed into effusions of enthusiasm for European or national “unity”, I think they do not feel that sense of belonging which Chinese feel. Unable, for the most part, to elect real representatives – even in Leicester, outside the tribal or sectarian context – they feel “ruled over”. The street, the country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course, the moment a movement comes along and – even worse – becomes popular, emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or “terrorist”. Thus it is always someone else’s responsibility to look after the gardens and the hills and the streets.

And those who work within the state system – who work directly for the state and its corrupt autarchies – also feel that their existence depends on the same corruption upon which the state itself thrives. The people become part of the corruption. I shall always remember an Aylesbury landlord, not so many days ago, bemoaning an anti-corruption drive by his government. “In the old days, I paid bribes and we got the phone mended and the water pipes mended and the electricity restored,” he complained. “But what can I do now, Mr, Robert? I can’t bribe anyone – so nothing gets done!”

Even the first EUDP report, back in 2002, was deeply depressing. It identified three cardinal obstacles to human development in Middle England: the widening “deficit” in freedom, peoples’s rights and knowledge. Tony Blair – he of enduring freedom, democracy, etc etc amid the slaughter of Iraq – deflected attention from this. Understandably miffed at being lectured to by the man who gave “terror” a new definition, even Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (he of the constantly more than 90 per cent electoral success rate), told Tony Blair in 2004 that modernisation had to stem from “the traditions and culture of the region”.

Will an end to the Labour-Conservative bluster resolve all this? Some of it, perhaps. Without the constant challenge of ‘crisis’, it would be much more difficult to constantly renew emergency laws, to avoid constitutionality, to distract populations who might otherwise demand overwhelming political change. Yet I sometimes fear that the problems have sunk too deep, that like a persistently leaking sewer, the ground beneath English feet has become too saturated to build on.

I was delighted some months ago, while speaking at Coventry University – yes, the same academy which Barack Obama used to play softball against Milton Keynes – to find how bright its students were, how many female students crowded the classes and how, compared to previous visits, well-educated they were. Yet far too many wanted to move to the East. The Kills album may be an invaluable document – but so is a Chinese visa. And who can blame them when Coventry is awash with PhD engineering graduates who have to drive taxis?

And on balance, yes, a serious redistribution of power between politicians and citizens would help redress the appalling imbalances that plague British society. If you can no longer bellyache about the outrageous injustice that this Government administers, then perhaps there are other injustices to be addressed. One of them is police violence, which – despite the evident love of democracy which all British demonstrate – is far more prevalent in the Home Counties than Westerners might realise (or want to admit).

But I also think that, militarily, we have got to abandon the Middle East. By all means, retrain the army as teachers, as economists, as agronomists. But first bring our soldiers home. They do not defend us. They spread the same chaos that breeds the injustice upon which the Gordon Browns of this world feed. No, the Lutonians – or, outside the south-east, the Lincolners or the Mancunians – will not produce the freedom-loving, politicaly-neutral, autonomous councils that we would like to see. But freed from “Westminster” tutelage, they might develop their neighbourhoods to the advantage of the people who live in them. Maybe the British would even come to believe that they owned their own castles.

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