The New Romantics
The modern obsession with “being yourself” has led to attention-seeking charlatanry
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.