Snow, Society and Conservatism

January 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 7 Comments

383564341 7acb80c0fbI know there’s a recession, freezing temperatures, and we’re at the start of what looks to be an unpleasant election campaign, but there are still times when you can smile and think “y’know what, we’re a bloody brilliant little country, aren’t we?”

As much as the bad weather has caused everything from irritation to havoc, there’s still much to enjoy in reading about the ways people coped, and plenty to admire in the many acts of kindness and heroism.

People like the employees from a building company who downed tools to help a charity deliver meals to the vulnerable, or the residents of a West Sussex village whose community spirit & soup kitchen helped them survive a power failure. People like this Doncaster park ranger who battled through five hours of thick snow to rescue two trapped women, or the chap who drives his 20 year old tractor through Gloucestershire, clearing snow. People like Barry and Sid, who drove through 30 miles of snow saving trapped motorists, or folks in the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who helped dig out an ambulance which had got stuck. People like the public sector workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, the passing driver who saved an injured cyclist’s life or the two teenagers who risked their own lives trying to save men from drowning.

These stories are inspiring & heart-warming, but they are also so frequent as to seem mundane. These people are ordinary and they are everywhere.

I mention this because snow is, for some reason, a political issue. On his blog, Dan Hannan described how he’d been ‘public spirited’ enough to clear snow for his neighbours, and wondered:

If everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Hannan’s argument here is that ‘big government’ discourages us from exhibiting the same public spirited behaviour as himself. Because there is a big, unweildy state delivering public services, we choose not to show kindness or consideration for others because we expect the government to do everything for us.

It’s a view which is also shared by the Leader of the Opposition. Here’s what David Cameron said when he gave his Hugo Young Lecture:

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

What Cameron is essentially arguing is that the state is a social evil, for it subverts all our better instincts. If this were true, then these examples of kindness and heroism would be outliers; unrepresentatuve of the country as a whole and made all the more extraordinary in light of the state’s discouragement of public-minded behaviour. According to this speech, to show human kindness, generosity and imagination is to go against the grain.

Am I the only one who thinks this an awfully pessimistic view of the country David Cameron wants to govern? There are many different arguments for slashing spending or reducing the size of the state, but to actually go to the country and say something which is just a more polite form of “we need a new government because Labour’s turned you into a bunch of bastards”, seems a little over the top.

This pessimism is something Alex Massie’s noted in the past. Cameron started out by promising to ‘let sunshine win the day’, but the closer he’s got to Downing Street, the more dystopic his depictions. As Massie puts it: “Frankly, if you were to take Tory rhetoric at face value the only sensible course, for those with the means to take it, would be emigration.”

This brings into question Cameron’s view of British life and the character or its people. Is he simply fulfilling the requirement of any opposition leader to note how terrible everything is, or does he really believe it? Were he ever in a position to answer that question honestly, it’d reveal much about his values, and about his perceptions of the people whose state he wants to govern.

Picture via Lawrence OP



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  1. All of your points are very good ones. It’s very easy to have a negative view of the British state and people – especially if garnering votes depends on promoting that view.

    But as an immigrant to these isles, I see with clearer eyes, perhaps, the character of the British. And, in the circles I move in at least, the British are an excellent people with much to commend them. I wouldn’t have busted my ass to stay here if the British were a terrible nation, or if the country were truly a hell-hole. Whatever the politicians may say, I have found most British people to be friendly, helpful, kind to people as individuals if not as groups, and tremendously good company. Although I am willing to believe things could be better (and let’s face it, this is true of any place at any time), I have a difficult time believing things have gotten that much worse. There are always trade-offs.

    On the other hand, today is a good day, and I haven’t read any narrow-minded anit-immigrant screeds, or any other kind of us v. them screeds, today. So take my view with a grain or two of salt!

    • Thanks, Bella. I do have more to add to this, but there is a pub which I should’ve been in about 10 minutes ago, so I’ll try to do it later.

    • Okay, yes. Hello.

      Whatever the politicians may say, I have found most British people to be friendly, helpful, kind to people as individuals if not as groups, and tremendously good company.

      From this sentence, I conclude that you must be living in Yorkshire. :)

      Sorry, bad joke, but one which reflects that you’re in some ways better placed than many Brits to identify a ‘national character’, or characteristics which lots of us share, in spite of difference. My own regional bias is maybe too distinct for me to talk about ‘the British’, and I suspect the same is true of other people as well. In your case, not having any regional bias probably makes it easier for you to identify where there are similarities between us.

      I’m quite dismissive of all the ‘national crisis’ rhetoric Cameron uses when he talks about society, but it’s still interesting to think about. I did a series of posts last year about whether there really is a decline in standards of morality and civility, and whether there was a ‘golden age’ where everything was so much nicer & more polite. For me, it’s something which is impossible to measure; all we can really go on is our perceptions, and they’re rarely objective or impartial. So when I contend that standards of morality & civility haven’t declined, that’s more reflective of my own experience than of society as a whole, and the same is true of someone who contends the opposite.

      That said (and hopping continents for a minute) you listen to people who’ve lived the drug trade in places like Compton or Queens, and you’ll hear them talk about how standards really have slipped, and that codes of conduct which people used to abide by are now non-existent. So maybe there are some ways in which our social fabric has become damaged. The difference, I guess, is that declining civility amongst drug runners might have a liberal policy solution to it, whereas there’s not a government policy which can make the rest of us more nice to each other.

  2. […] tone. For those who are undecided if my displeasure is justified I would like to recommend Neil Robertson’s post on the lovely British people in the […]

  3. I have to agree with Hannan. I cleared the pavement outside my house six times, and my neighbours on the right cleared theirs, but they’re Germans. But there were just four clearances in a street of 160 houses. What was noticeable was that although the street is at least half-full of young people, that is, under 40, none of them bothered. They’ve got more important concerns: texting, twittering, Facebooking and so on.

    • Then it sounds like you’ve got a selfish neighbourhood, which is a shame. But it still takes a leap of logic to believe that your bad experience is due to the state. For example, that chap who, over 2 millennia ago, was robbed by bandits and ignored until the ‘Good Samaritan’ came along was never met with cries of ‘Oh, sorry, that’s the state’s responsibility’. Selfishness exists independent of any state. As does charity and good deeds.

  4. Cameron certainly deserves a kicking for being a disfunctional sociophobe, but he is also cashing in on this brief phase of conspicuous community spirit, confident in the belief that while Middle England is happy to be part of a community when there are brownie points to be earned, it will go back in its shell when the weather turns.
    It has to, it is far too burdened by pointless, life-draining jobs to have time for anything but paying the mortgage. It’s a form of sharecropping.
    One winter won’t transform Britain from the fragmented ragbag of alienated sects it has become. There is more to community spirit than making a cup of soup for the little old lady next door. But even the remaining shreds of fellow feeling will be in danger if the next government is even more possessed by the property fetish than this one – which it certainly will be.

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