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Piers Morgan: No constraint (©ITV)

With the Brexit negotiations looming like a coming war, foreigners will want to learn, perhaps for the last time, what drives British culture. The stereotype, still widely believed after all these years, of buttoned-up, stiff-lipped Britishness, will not help them, I’m afraid.

That exhausted cliché reflects a classical ideal of British culture. At the BBC, in the civil service, police and public sector, judiciary and much of the private sector, you are still meant to be impartial and discreet; to fulfil your duties without allowing your emotions or political opinions to sway your judgment. It would still be shocking if a Supreme Court judge were to stand up and announce how he voted at the last election, or a BBC news journalist were to campaign openly for a controversial cause.

As an opinionated writer I can never be a part of classical British culture. But I expect police officers not to take bribes and judges to keep their views on anything beyond the law to themselves. I admire British classicism in others, while being able to see why it is dying.

The dominant culture now is a modern version of romanticism — again, please forgive me for using terms broadly. Its ideal is to be yourself and express yourself. Its enemies are self-restraint and conformity. Romanticism has been building since the 1960s and has been amplified beyond measure by new media. As with the classical tradition, it is easy to see romanticism’s attractions. For who wants to bottle up their feelings and suppress their opinions? In what sense is that guarded person, hedged by rules and under constant surveillance from the policeman in the head, the “real you”?

Classic British attitudes fail now because so many think they are expert at stripping off the mask of impartiality and finding real or imagined political, racist or patriarchal thoughts lurking behind the apparently neutral exterior. The right-wing press scours BBC output with a malignant squint for the smallest hint of liberal bias. Leftists detect echoes of colonialism or misogyny in everyday language. What is less appreciated is that the stripping of modern British romanticism of its pretensions is long overdue.

Assume that we have true selves that we can somehow reach by freeing ourselves from constraints. I don’t believe it, because homo sapiens is a social species defined in large part by the constraints our interactions with others impose on us. For the sake of argument, however, let us assume our true selves exist like archaeological sites buried under mounds of earth. As tens of millions of social media users have discovered, the truth about most of us is that our lives are pretty dull. If you want attention you have to go to the extremes, regardless of whether the “real you” is an extremist. You must be extremist in your “revelations” about your private life, your views on sex and in your politics. The desire for attention in a crowd of billions explains why social media has been overrun by the crazed and the violent. (Or perhaps I should say the purportedly crazed and violent.)

If foreigners want to understand the hypocrisies of the new perfidious Albion they should take a characteristic modern media charlatan as their example. They will learn that, like needy, screaming toddlers, the modern British, or large numbers of them at any rate, believe Boris Johnson when he tells them that they can have their cake and eat it — a lie that encapsulates our national decline.

Allow me to move from the ridiculous to the dangerous to show how the new culture damns us. At the ridiculous, and indeed repellent end of British national life, you have in their own terms hugely successful media charlatans like Piers Morgan. He frankly expresses himself without constraint. But on closer examination his supposedly authentic beliefs blow around like a bin bag in a gale. When New Labour was popular he was a nominally left-wing editor of the Mirror. When its popularity fell, he was so against the Iraq war his proprietors had to fire him after he published fake photographs which had been mocked up to show British troops torturing Iraqi prisoners. Now that he is sniffing the cold wind coming from the Right, he screams at feminists and those who criticise his friend Donald Trump for, among things, the US President’s support for waterboarding. You have it right: Morgan denounces fake torture while indulging advocates of the real thing.

Characteristically, Morgan is both an “impartial” news presenter on ITV and a Twitter loudmouth with an audience of millions. The TV regulators ought to tell ITV that he can’t be both classical and romantic. As they refuse to do so, other broadcasters will want to have their cake and eat it too. The temptation to repeat the old line that you could carve a better man out of a banana and move on is overwhelming.

Don’t be too hasty. As with social media and the old media, so with national life. If the last referendum is a guide, nationalists will once again tell Scots that they can have independence without tears. No pain. No turmoil. No cost. They can take aggressive stances, denounce fellow Scots who disagree with them as traitors, and treat fellow citizens in the rest of the UK as foreigners. But there will be no consequences.

The English Left is just as mendacious. If it exists at all after Corbyn, it exists as a social media echo chamber. The Left took over and gives every indication of destroying a great party because it believed that, if only people could see its true leftish self and hear its authentically radical voice, they would turn to it in their millions. Even now that the public has abandoned Labour in its millions, leftists can still not accept that, by being romantically true to themselves they have betrayed Britain to their enemies on the Right.

Worst of all are the English Right themselves. They won a referendum on a false bill of goods and are still now pretending that we can have Brexit without tears. EU negotiators should expect British politicians to be like toddlers who learn there is no Father Christmas. There will be no stiff upper lips or sense of duty. Instead, Theresa May and her ministers will scream that all the consequences that have flown from their decisions will be the EU’s fault.

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April 1st, 2017
8:04 AM
Instead of a real TV review here's Nick Cohen hawking his favourite set of post referendum opinions around the internet news and current affairs sites perhaps in the hope that eventually a sufficient number of readers will take him has seriously as he takes himself. Perhaps he is having difficulty coping with the fact that "Right Wing" is no longer the term of abuse that it once was. As was said of those bonus-demanding bankers after the 2008 "credit crunch" he just doesn't get it. He cannot understand why people have turned away from socialism and rather than making a genuine effort to find out he decides that the British public are fools who have been deceived by charlatans (has he been influenced by Noam Chomsky who sees charlatans everywhere?). Cohen seems to suffer from his own romantic streak with his talk of a once great Labour party brought down by left wing idealists. In all his post referendum writings there is not a glimmer of genuine understanding of why so many people voted Leave. Too much curiosity might undermine the position he has barackaded himself into. He has found a new cause and is sticking with it no matter what. I for one, never thought that Brexit would be painless when I voted Leave. I also anticipated the seething and bitter rage of the political/media/academic class (as exemplified by Cohen). Describing the modern British as "needy screaming toddlers" is not a view reached by careful analysis. It is abuse from a writer enraged at the failure of the public to support the left wing revolution so dear to his heart. Beyond the bluster there is not much in the way of insight. Perhaps now Cohen has earned himself a spot on Standpoint's Overrated column.

March 30th, 2017
8:03 PM
Oh look, Nick's re-written the same bullshit article once again. Change the f'ing record, mate.

Camilla Hill
March 30th, 2017
2:03 PM
Sad to witness the national character wax and wane. We are adrift in a ship of fools. Time to teach critical thinking to the whole population. Part of my sadness around the referendum is due to the fall in standards of honesty accountability and honour amongst those who would lead us.

March 30th, 2017
1:03 PM
I agree with your analysis, Nick, apart from your calling this tendency 'romanticism'. It's actually more philistinism, which has a long tradition here: Gove's recent codswallop about being 'fed up of experts' was a fine example. Romanticism could indeed be individualistic and fatuous, but it also challenged the established order and still - I think and hope - does. It's got strong historical links to democracy, as have you - which is why you're worth reading. Hang in!

Lee Carney
March 30th, 2017
12:03 PM
Nick is 100% right (again) about the 'have your cake and eat it too' being a problem for left and right on social media (and I say this as someone who has been angered by the both-siderism of the press allowing right extremism to thrive unchallenged for a decade) If you doubt it, go to a comment thread or twitter and put forward a ideologically popular view like say, increasing welfare payments for the unemployed, on a site frequented by Left Wing readers, but then put forward the strategy for getting it done in the real world, which means giving up something or imposing a cost (other than increased taxes on the rich) and check the responses, you will be called Tory scum, you will be told you have become a dupe for RW propaganda, an Murdoch stooge, its ridiculous. A recent example for me was agreeing with someone that Newstart (The dole here in Australia) is absurdly low, particularly the rent-assistance portion, now we have a country of 24 million and somehow 600,000 ppl on disability support, its fairly obvious that with Newstart not even covering suburban rents that long-term unemployed are doing everything they can to get on the much more generous disability support, and I don't even blame them, in their situation I would too, so my suggestion was to dramatically increase the dole, but to sell it to an electorate, where suprise, suprise not everyone agrees with you, you could bring in tests for disability support that gets people who are on it back onto Newstart. Now I know there are horror story's with this with over-zealous bureaucrats & the like making life hell for truly deserving disability support recipients, and you would have to have safeguards, but this is not the nuanced critique that I copped. No, what happened was ppl just flat refusing to accept that doctor shopping and fraudulent disability support claims exist, which is madness (again, we have some major problems if in a country of 24 million we have 600,000 to disabled to work, not even including workers compensation recipients) But both sides (and I acknowledge the Trumpian right is much worse) refuse to even consider what you would give up to get the things you want. No wonder we can't get anything done

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