Terence Blacker: It's our leaders, not us, who need to show more character

The Way We Live: At the top, there is greed and elsewhere a weary cynicism has taken hold

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The Independent Online

Just for a moment there, I was back at school. It was halfway through term and the masters were barking instructions at us. "Hairy" Hague was saying that no one was working hard enough. "Pudding" Pickles weighed in, saying that the school had been reducing regulations, but the pupils were still letting it down. "Bonkers" Johnson huffed and puffed about general attitude.

A real headmaster was on hand to give these comments moral context. "What on earth is going on here?" thundered Anthony Seldon, of Wellington College. "Character used to be ingrained in our psyche. The bulldog spirit saw us through wars and national disasters. Churchill will be turning in his grave."

In life as in school, those in charge are sometimes not over-endowed with the bulldog spirit themselves. Their first instinct, when things get rough, is to shift the blame downwards.

So it has been over the past few days. Just as Norman Tebbit once blamed unemployment on the bike-shy jobless, William Hague, backed up by Eric Pickles, has identified a new reason for our stagnation: idleness, particularly in managers. "We're trying to rescue the work ethic just in time," Hague boasted. It was the end of the something-for-nothing culture, said Pickles.

Johnson's attack on another flank of contemporary Britain has been a rather more interesting version of the same tune. Our culture, exemplified by the BBC, has become hooked on a flabby, statist view of the world. Media liberals were unquestioningly anti-enterprise, he said. For them, anything worthwhile tended to be publicly funded.

Unpleasant as it is to be hectored by these bossy men, there is some truth in what they say. People may work longer hours, and under greater pressure, but investors are sitting on their money. Managers are quick to blame others (Europe, red tape, the recession, the British worker), and seem to devote what ambition and energy they have to increasing the scale of their own personal remuneration.

At the BBC, there is, as Johnson argues, a sort of easy, suffocating consensus – a plump corporatism that distrusts individuality and difference. His idea of appointing a free-market, pro-business director-general is alarming, but it is true that a bit of colour and daring would not go amiss.

As for character, Seldon is right that there is little in evidence now, and even less bulldog spirit. At the top, there is greed and elsewhere a sort of weary cynicism, an instinctive not-my-fault-guv attitude has taken hold.

The problem demands more than a few citizenship lessons, though. Seldon speaks up for fee-paid education, with its marvellous sports, combined cadet forces and religious education, but there is a major flaw to this argument. It is the very people who have been through that system who show least character, who have been putting themselves first, who are responsible for the breakdown in public trust.

A large proportion of the lazy senior managers, the dodgy politicians, the rich and the greedy, were educated at public schools, with all their much-vaunted emphasis on morality and responsibility. Reared in a hothouse of privilege, members of a powerful minority have learned the importance of putting themselves first.

It will take a bigger revolution of attitude to restore our sense of commitment to a wider society than teaching morality at school. The source of over-confidence and selfishness on the one hand, and cynical alienation on the other is that fault-line in British society, private education, and the huge advantages it confers to a few.

It is impossible to imagine any government facing up to that central injustice and waste of talent, or any party having the courage – the character, in fact – to fight for change. Until that happens, the nagging of these Establishment voices will remain little more than meaningless noise.

Comedy, yes. Comfort, no

We are entering, it seems, a new golden age of TV comedy, at least in quantity. Sky TV has just commissioned a slew of new sitcoms in competition with the four main terrestrial channels. In a recession, according to ITV's Elaine Bedell, comedy is "ratings gold dust... a very warm place for an audience to spend up to 60 minutes".

There is something about that word "warm" which sets off alarm bells. The humour needed right now is not comfortably domestic or pointlessly zany, but goes to the risky edge of things. A recent episode of the superb US series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, covered racism, political incorrectness, the comparative sexual prowess (I put it politely) of black and white men, and the effect of a nurse's cleavage on Larry David's heart test.

Flirting gloriously with liberal embarrassment, unwitting prejudice and the indignities of lust, it could never have been made in the UK. Let's hope the new golden age of TV comedy brings in the new and risky, and not safety-first retreads of past hits.