“A nation scared stiff of becoming modern”

The quote in the headline above, on Twitter, is from the writer David Head and when I saw it it immediately struck a chord. The context was the weird Coronation which had largely incomprehensible pageantry which, it seems, was pretty random. The invention of tradition played a big part in the costumes, rituals and the rest.

We are a conservative nation whatever our politics are. We revere the past and don’t like change. Much was achieved in the immediate post war years with the creation of the welfare state. Then that became part of the tradition and as such became immutable to change, especially of course the National Health Service. So threaten the NHS, for example by suggesting a greater role for the private sector, and you’ll be vilified. Conservatism (not the political sort!) in action.

The reason our public services are such a mess is that they haven’t modernised enough. There are many reasons for this. Botched privatisation (The Railways, Water, Gas and Electricity…). Inadequate investment. Union intransigence. Nimbyism. Myopia.

The railways are one of the worst examples of Britain’s failure to modernise. Virtually every country in Europe has High Speed Railways. Paris to Lyon, Milan to Rome, Barcelona to Madrid, Berlin to Munich… quick, safe, clean affordable rail travel is taken for granted. Here zilch. Old tracks, slow trains, confused timetables, incompatible fare systems…

But it’s attitudes that are stuck in the past as well. The insane “Sovereignty” argument that gave us Brexit was like something out of Victorian and Imperial Britain. The idea that going it alone gets better outcomes than working with others is not just absurd but quantifiably bonkers. The delusion that it matters more where a decision is made than the quality of the decision underpinned the Brexiteers’ campaigns.

Sticking a union flag on something is meant to confer value as in the above campaign from a while back to try and persuade people (mainly ourselves) that Britain is Great. It was the sort of thing somebody with a self-confidence problem does.

In the past military and imperial power was such that “Land of Hope and Glory” with its confident assertion that “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” was probably true of its time. The Victorian era was a time of British dominance which is why we retain its symbols despite the dominance long since having faded away. That was the essence of the Coronation pageant.

With the exception of the United States and China no nation is large enough to be entirely self-sustaining. Europe together rivals these two great powers and the underlying transnational cooperation imperative in the EU is one that other nations are grouping together to follow. Japan and the ten ASEAN countries have economic and trade treaties and alliances. The Swiss, not in the EU, have an arrangement that gives them benefits in the same way that Japan, not in ASEAN, has them in the Far East. Meanwhile Britain goes it alone.

We are like the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof” where tradition is everything:

“Because of our traditions,
We’ve kept our balance for many, many years.
Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything…
how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes.”

For “Anatevka” read “Britain”.

People and Nations scared of change hide behind traditions or invent them. The past becomes a better place so our visions are backwards rather than into the future. “Why do you do that!” is answered with “Because we always have”. And utterly illogical behaviours are retained in part because nobody else has them. Resistance to change is endemic we are, as David Head rightly says “Scared stiff of becoming modern” or, I would add, taking a lead from other nations who do things better.

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