Saturday, 24 June 2017

We must learn to be British again


Something happened to Britain in the past fifty years or so. We were famous for not making a fuss no matter what happened and we were famous for not showing emotion. When Lord Uxbridge had his leg shot off at Waterloo, he is said to have remarked casually to the Duke of Wellington that it seemed he had lost his leg. The Duke equally casually agreed with him. Both were unruffled, neither showed much emotion.  It doesn’t matter if this story is true, because it used to express something about the British character that was true.

Until relatively recently in history death was all around us. There was a fairly high chance that a woman would die in childbirth. If she did not die, a high proportion of her children would either in infancy or from a one of the childhood diseases that still had not been cured. There were also many killer diseases that could strike at any time in adulthood. Many illnesses that can be easily cured today were simply a death sentence even fifty or sixty years ago.




British civilians and soldiers alike risked death in the two World Wars on a scale that few can even comprehend today. Most of them did so willingly and if asked how they were doing would say something like “mustn’t grumble”. We have access to this attitude in some of the films of the period. British heroes are depicted as downplaying any heroism. Death is taken in its stride and the only sign of emotion is a slight change in voice and just a hint of an alternation of expression. Grief was felt, but not in public.

It seems like another world now, this Britain with its impossibly posh accents. But if you watch Celia Johnson in This Happy Breed (1944) you see how people used to be. It may seem callous. A mother informed of a death chokes up for a second and then thanks the person who took the trouble to tell her. She goes on as before and maybe offers to make some tea. Whatever she is feeling is barely shown. We can only guess at the depth.  But this was the British character. It was this that meant that we kept going when times were tough. Unfortunately it is something that many of us lost somewhere, or perhaps never even had.

There have been rather a lot of terrible events recently. We have had terrorist attacks and now a horrible fire that has killed people in a cruel and unexpected way. Who thinks that such a thing is possible when they go to their bed?

But some perspective is necessary. We have done much to make the world safer. One hundred years ago the world of work was much more dangerous than it is today. Our homes too were much more likely to kill us. We risked illness from unrefrigerated food. Quality control did not exist and health and safety was unknown. Life expectancy was massively lower than today.

There have always been disasters. No doubt there always will be. Ships sink, planes crash, cars have accidents. We work hard to minimise risk, but we cannot eliminate it. Unfortunately mistakes are made. It is human to make mistakes. Which of us does not make many of them every day?

Whenever something bad happens today there are two reactions, something must be done and someone must be blamed. The “something must be done” mentality usually leads to something being done quickly and without much thought. Often it therefore does not help, sometimes it makes the situation worse. The “someone must be blamed” mentality frequently leads to injustice.

Who is to blame for the fire in Grenfell Tower? We don’t really know yet. There will be an inquiry which may or may not find out. It may turn out that a faulty fridge caused the fire. If the person had replaced this fridge or perhaps not bought it in the first place, then there would not have been a fire. Should this person be blamed? Perhaps he knew that the fridge was a risk and failed to replace it. Should he be punished for negligence? But which of us has never had out of date or faulty electrical equipment?

It looks as if it was a terrible mistake to renovate the tower with material that helped the fire to spread. Should we blame the firm responsible for the renovation? Did they know that it would lead to a fire? Did they intend that their work would kill people?

This really is the crucial issue in morality. Blame after all is fundamentally a moral issue. In general I want to be blamed for things that I intended to do. I think it is unjust to be blamed for something that I neither wanted nor could foresee would happen. But this is not how the law sees it. But then law often has little to do with morality and less to do with truth. It is for this reason that it is a subject that is not worth studying. 

Recently a lorry was poorly maintained and crashed. Two men were convicted of manslaughter. They were nowhere near the crash when it happened, but were convicted none the less and jailed for a long time. They were responsible for maintaining the vehicle which killed people and it is for this reason they have been punished. But did they intend to kill anyone? No. Could they foresee that their actions would lead to these particular deaths? No. If their lorry had not crashed, would they have been blamed for their negligence? No. Would they have been punished? No.

There are, no doubt, many firms that poorly maintain their vehicles. Most of them get away with it. If they are caught with a faulty vehicle, the punishment will be minimal. But if that faulty vehicle kills someone, they will go to jail for a long time. It is purely a matter of luck. The intent was the same. Luck, by the way, is not a moral quality. 

A few years ago someone stayed up all night and then drove home. He crashed his car and the car ended up on a railway line. This caused an accident and many people were killed. Once more the driver was sent to prison. But if he had stayed up all night, crashed his car onto the track and there had not been a train coming, he would have been barely punished at all. Which of us has never driven when tired? Which of us has never even for a second done something dangerous while driving? Well we have just been lucky. 

It would be more just to punish the intent rather than the result. The person who drives while talking on a mobile should be punished the same as someone who drives while talking on a mobile and who kills someone. The intent and the negligence is the same. The punishment should be the same?

No-one intended to cause a fire in Grenfell Tower, though it may turn out that some people were negligent. But if dangerous materials were used in Grenfell Tower by one firm, they were, no doubt, used in other towers around the country. To punish one firm more for their actions because people died is unjust for their actions were the same as those of another firm that killed no-one. By all means punish negligence, but don’t punish more for something no-one could foresee and no-one wanted. Punish the intent, because I am only responsible for what I intended, not for what I did not intend.

Unfortunately however, we live in a society that always wants to blame. Sometimes this attempt to blame reaches absurd levels. Until a few days ago neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn had heard of Grenfell Tower. Neither of them knew anything about how buildings like this one have been renovated recently. Yet somehow it has been turned into a political issue.

It may turn out that corners were cut and the people responsible for either building or renovating Grenfell Tower tried to save money. Sorry folks, but we live in a world where we have to try to save money. The reason for this is long-term. We spend more than we earn. I wish we didn’t but we do. This is the fault of both main political parties who have been in government.

We have an excess of demand on housing in Britain especially in London. The reason we have this demand is that a lot of people want to live in London. There are jobs there. London draws people from everywhere. The resulting pressure on accommodation has been caused by the policies of both political parties in the past decades. If there were not this pressure, it might have been possible to tear down dangerous tower blocks decades ago, but in the present circumstances this is not possible. We have a duty to house everybody and must make do with the housing available. I wish that this were not so, but demand on housing especially in London is outstripping supply and has been for decades. 

So if we are looking for the causes of this fire we could find them just as much in the fact that our country has been living beyond its means and has struggled to house everyone who wants to come here as in the fact that this particular building was poorly maintained and renovated.  

This shows the folly of trying to turn tragedy into a political issue. Those on the Right, just as much as the Left, could try to take political advantage of this fire. But it is seriously lacking in taste to do so. Every government and every council has to be make choices about how to spend their money. If you spend too much on one thing you don’t have enough for something else. But spending money won’t necessarily save you from disaster. Unfortunately we have to learn from experience. We have made progress in safety only because we have learned from mistakes and turned catastrophes into lessons.

Those who have lost their lives and their friends and families have the country’s sympathy. But if the Far Left try to hijack that sympathy they may rapidly find that it diminishes. Neither Theresa May nor her Government are in any way to blame for this fire.

People are upset and angry, but this is not the British way to deal with disaster. Shouting at the Queen and asking her what she is going to do is ludicrous. Chasing Theresa May in a threatening way is unjustified and not how British people respond to affliction.

Theresa May is focussing on practical ways to help. She may not be wailing and gnashing her teeth, nor ripping her clothes to shreds. But this is because she is British and from a generation that did not do these things. Until recently all of us were like this. Now unfortunately we are few. It would be much better if there were rather less emotion instead of rather more. Let us accept that disaster will always periodically happen. There is nothing we can do about this. It is futile to look for blame for these deaths. These people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as much as some people were beneath a bomb in 1940 while others were not.

When emotions are less raw we will be able to look calmly at what can be done to make our housing safer, but do not think that we can live in a world that is risk free. We have greater life expectancy than anyone in history. We are less likely to die because of war, disease or accident. But someone right now is making a mistake, because he is human, and that mistake may kill someone. I might make that mistake, you may make it too.  

Blame is like a stone. It is very easy to throw it. But which of us is without blame for something. Go then and blame no more.  Rather reflect that in the end we have no choice but to accept misfortune and we must put away anger, for rage solves no problems but rather makes them worse. Better by far to learn how British people used to deal with tragedy quietly and without much fuss. In dark days there is a comfort in knowing that we have been through worse, much worse. This is what it is to be British. We must learn to be that way again. Let us “grieve not, rather find, strength in what remains behind.”

14 comments:

  1. Very well put. I come from the immediate post war generation and what you say resonates deeply with me. It is too easy to scream and shout and wear hearts on sleeves, sometimes for expediency. We have to do the best we can, and sometimes that has been seen to not be the case, in which instance those people should be called to account. I doubt this tragedy will deter people from continuing to try and come and take up residence in the UK.

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  2. Without a revival of Christianity there is a fat chance that the British character in its fullness will be recovered. What we have is a ridiculous and evolving godless liberal humanist morality taking up the vacuum as Christian capital depleted.

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    1. Richard, you might like this article from the ‘The Wee Flea’:
      https://theweeflea.com/2017/06/22/the-blame-game-and-the-demonisation-of-theresa-may/
      The host of that site is a Dundee minister of the Free Church, and often writes (and participates in podcasts) about Christianity—robust Christianity not the modern Church of the SJW; and he’s had articles published in the MSM (Daily Mail, Scotsman, at least). Politically, he supports Scottish independence (‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’), but is of the principled kind, respecting the Referendum result and opposing IndyRef2, and is often critical of the SNP; and is moderately Left but critical of the hypocrisy and lunacy of what passes for the modern Left.

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  3. This is a great wright up & most of what you say is correct, I was brought up by parent with this back bone & attitude & believe they steered me in the right direction but it is hard to live in a world that feels it need to make an issue of every small thing that happens, in turn it does make some conflict to the way we should be, are & they way we are going or become as a society.

    I think a lot of this change in attitude is we are now a nation of different races & cultures which has some what water down our character of be calm & carry on. We are all different & so is the world we live in.

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  4. "he is said to have remarked casually to the Duke of Wellington that it seemed he had lost his leg"

    'tis but a flesh wound.


    "It is purely a matter of luck"

    Unless there is some negative feedback the cycle will continue. The cladding fire event cound reasonably have been foreseen.

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  5. You poor people who burned to death, shut up and die quietly....Don't embarrass the PM who has shown she is without empathy....there's a good chap...

    Richard tells us everything would be better if we believed in fairies. Aline tells us that despite the fire she thinks immigration is still a problem, she seems to infer this is the biggest tragedy....

    Inserter2020 (one wonders what they are inserting) manages to make a wright(sic) pigs ear of the English. However they do get close to world record sentence length. I nearly passed out reading it. It took me 3 goes to try and translate it, possibly some form of pidgin English.

    So we have agreement from the Victorian, the religious fanatic , the illiterate and wee Bums boy.

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  6. Well done Effie , seems you have comments from your whole follower demographic. Including the 25% English contingent. One wonders where Aldo the Red Hand Commando is, possibly in hiding due to current Tory ineptitude. I do miss his innocent optimism.

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    1. "...25% English contingent."

      Oh, outrageous, English people reading this blog! This is a Scottish blog for Scottish people!

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    2. Sorry SJ we have our quota already on here ;o) run along

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  7. "Until a few days ago neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn had heard of Grenfell Tower"

    Factually incorrect, it's Corbyn's constituency so he at least had heard of it. And you could see from the reactions of the locals that he wasn't some aloof stranger come to visit from on high....

    And I'm neither a "Leftie" or a born again "Corbynista"....

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    1. You're getting confused with the so-called Islamophobic attack in Finsbury Park I think.

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  8. Hi Effie
    I'm very interested in your splendid work on those defining British characteristics of yesteryear (!) but I don't think you need to use that dodgy argument about the deficit to justify cutting corners on infrastructure projects. That argument wound surely offend our British sense of fair play in view of the suffering of the victims, but since spending £8.6m on doing up 127 flats is hardly cutting corners - c. £70K per dwelling ranks somewhere between lavish and profligate on my scale - why not just leave it to one side?

    I can see why absolving corporations of blame seems like a tidy solution if you're not keen on the blame game post-Grenfell, but the logical conclusion you inevitably reach is that no-one is in fact responsible for anything they did not intend. If you ignore the outcome of individual and corporate actions altogether, and focus exclusively on criminalising intent then all you're left with is the Thought-Police isn't it?

    A way round this conundrum could be to distinguish more carefully between the responsibility of those involved, and the various aggravating and mitigating circumstances, of which the degree of harm caused is an obvious example of aggravation ie 79 dead. Far from resulting in fundamental inconsistencies, consideration of aggravation and mitigation has surely always been the sine qua non of British justice has it not?! This is bound to result in different disposals (prison etc.) for different outcomes whether there was intent or not. NB Limiting the ability of the judiciary to exercise discretion in this way for the purpose of sentencing has been a disaster and contributed significantly to inflated rates of incarceration in the U.K. - political parties should stop meddling as they vie with each other to be tougher than thou.

    Agree about the poor bloke with his exploding Hotpoint fridge-freezer, but it seems as though Rydon used a string of sub-contractors on the external cladding. Suggests this tragedy will eventually turn into the usual story of outsourcing being used so extensively that responsibility for operational failure becomes so diluted that no trace of it can be found. Personally I would put so-called green targets in the frame alongside every other link in this particular supply chain. I suspect a lot of people will have been under a lot of pressure to achieve energy-efficiency gains that are simply unattainable without slapping shedloads of aluminium on high-rise ... without intent to cause thermite reactions of course ..

    I want to finish on another point of agreement though, so hope you share my view that ignoring the bleeding obvious has never generally been thought to be a defining British characteristic. Apart from the use of aluminium, I was also shocked to learn that whole families were still being advised not to evacuate the building hours after the fire had started and stayed in their flats to await their fate. I've never worked or lived anywhere where the first thing you do after dialing 999 isn't to evacuate the building - leaving through nearest fire exit is the last line of defence, so I'm sure this advice will have been a major cause, if not the ultimate major cause, of the death toll. I wonder how you think the apportionment of responsibility for issuing this advice should work here? Personally I think the London Fire Brigade will have some difficult questions to answer.

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  9. Nothing can be gained by massive displays of public grieving. The Diana circus was a turning point in British society - people crying their eyes out for a woman they never met and didn't know, while her own family maintained composure.

    The Grenfell tower victims don't need someone standing around greetin for the cameras. They don't need a witch hunt either. They need a government that will give them practical assistance and the correct application of the law. The cladding was already illegal. Parliament did its job. Now someone has to be prosecuted for manslaughter.

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    1. I don't disagree , not sure Effie is making same point though....

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