Andreas Whittam Smith: The danger of believing England is a liberal place

The mainstream has no problem with measures that infringe the rights of 'them' for the sake of 'us'
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The Independent Online

Julian Baggini's new book, Welcome to Everytown: A journey into the English mind, has disturbed assumptions I have long held about myself as well as about English society. Mr Baggini's method of inquiry was to spend six months living in the most average place he could find. Or more precisely, in the post code area that has the closest match of household types to the country as a whole. This turned out to be S66, a district on the outskirts of Rotherham in South Yorkshire.

The author, a philosopher, has sought to identify the dominant philosophy of the English and to describe our underlying belief systems. Mr Baggini's key insight is that England's culture remains predominantly working class. By paying too much attention to growing wealth, we have made the mistake of believing that everyone is gradually becoming middle class.

But in reality, writes Mr Baggini, the majority of those who deck out their houses with en suite bathrooms and drive bigger and better cars are also, in their values and beliefs, as resolutely working class as they ever were. The most popular television shows are either soaps about working class life or quizzes and entertainment that spring directly from the traditions of working men's clubs. And the greatest symbol of the centrality of working class culture to English life is football.

Indeed in England, when better-off people wish to show that they remain "in touch", they claim - often improbably to my mind - that they have been life long supporters of Manchester United or whatever.

I have always thought of myself as classless, and I suspect that many people I know suffer from this delusion. Was I not brought up in a poor part of Merseyside where my father was a vicar? Indeed, but Mr Baggini prompted me to recall that the vicarage was a middle class enclave in a working class area.

Did I not go to the local school that took in the brighter boys from within cycling distance of the school gates regardless of their parents' income? Yes, but my best friend was a Jewish doctor's son.

Have I not spent my working life mainly in journalism, a meritocracy where one's background doesn't count? Certainly, but this has meant that I have also spent 47 years living in central London, whose inhabitants are more like the citizens of other world cities than they resemble the people of South Yorkshire.

But it was when I read Mr Baggini's analysis of working-class beliefs that I began to see that I have grown up with a different value system. I share England's tradition of toleration, what Mr Baggini calls its dominant philosophical concept. Let us all be English in whatever way we choose, and as long as your Englishness doesn't threaten mine, it doesn't matter if it's different. Yes. However, it turns out that English toleration has its limits. The "we" which is the English mainstream has no problem with illiberal measures that infringe the liberties of "them" for the sake of "us".

As the author asserts: "the English are not classical liberals, but communitarians". A typical communitarian slogan is "No rights without responsibilities". In this way of thinking, rights are not absolute, as they are in the European and United Nations declarations of rights, but conditional. In English working-class culture, they depend upon the circumstances in which they are claimed. "Unless we recognise the fact that England is not liberal," writes Mr Baggini, "we will be going against the grain of popular thinking every time we try to implement policies that rest on the assumption that it is."

The same goes for fair play as in everyone plays by the same rules and no one cheats. But in practice, the English sense of fair play is considerably looser than this. After all, if we are paid in cash for some job, we probably won't declare it to the tax authorities.

No, on close examination our famous fair play is very similar to other country's. Playing fair does not mean playing by the rules, it means each person getting his or her due. And this, in turn, depends upon one's place in society. You might not cheat the neighbour next door, but you would rip off someone richer than you if you thought you could get away with it.

Mr Baggini also finds elements of our Protestant inheritance still intact within the English value system. He argues that our comparative lack of interest in food, our food-as-fuel mentality, our dieting obsessions, our binge and purge culture are all alike derived from the Reformation teaching that we shall in due course meet our Maker face to face with nobody and nothing to intervene on our behalf, neither priest nor prayers. So, filled with apprehension, we make repeated if faltering efforts to regain the path of virtue.

I can now place myself on the map more accurately. In so far as the people of South Yorkshire post code S66 hold communitarian views or don't take a strict view of fair play, I beg to differ. But in so far as they retain old protestant attitudes, then here in London W8, I share them too. As Mr Baggini remarks, the English are very bad at long lazy lunches. "The puritan in them can't see the point of hanging around any longer than it takes to get the food down you." That's me.