Letter: Major's confused definition of Back to Basics issues

Sir: John Major persists in linking certain moral principles with what he calls 'British instincts'. Moral behaviour, requiring reflection, will, choice, and so on, cannot be instinctive and whatever human instincts may be they do not, by definition, require to be taught.

Fifteen years ago it would have been the purest pedantry to insist on the distinction but in the light of recent history at home and abroad the confusion is dangerous. If certain kinds of social conduct were instinctive in a particular nation it is only a step to the assumption that they are not instinctive or are absent in others. In this way ethnic nationalism comes to be endowed with virtue and is reinforced.

In short, to speak of any moral quality, good or bad, as instinctive, innate or inherent in a people is, implicitly, to feed racism and most insidiously, perhaps, when it is done with bumbling innocence.

Yours faithfully,


Professor of Social Anthropology

University of Sussex


10 January