Simon Carr: The State doesn't own our children. Yet

Our institutions came to exist in a state of dynamic tension

Monday 26 October 2009 01:00
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So, we were in conversation, my Muslim friend and I, over the Tories' "free schools" policy. She said it was dangerous because Islamicists could set up their own schools to indoctrinate children into West-hating ways, and I said that yes, that might happen, but it was the parents' responsibility. She replied that the State not only had a duty to prevent it, but that we had to get away from the idea that parents owned their children. How's that again? The State rightfully had "partial ownership" of its citizen's children, she said.

I said that was "un-British" and we retreated to our respective positions and glared at each other a bit. In the spirit of the staircase I developed the exchange. I could have said her opinion wouldn't have sounded out of place in Germany 1936, or in modern-day Saudi Arabia. She might have said, "What makes you the custodian of Britishness?"

I might have said that fascism is a doctrine that's never taken hold in Britain, it's never been the case here that every citizen's first loyalty is to the State rather than to family, community, country.

She might have said, "Calling it un-British is an essentially racist way of excluding me from making a judgement on what is universally right." I might have said that an Islamic rejection of Western materialism has its merits, it's what we used to call "virtue".

She might have said, "The subjugation of women and the teaching of Creationism have no virtue in them whatever time and place." I would have said, "They've been teaching evolution in US schools, but still half the country believes man was created by God 10,000 years ago."

And she would have said...

Anyway. Going back to un-Britishness. We all spin different narratives out of English history, and here's mine. Since the Conquest, English institutions have contested with each other for supremacy. The Crown and the aristocracy. The aristocracy and the yeomanry. The Crown and the church. The Church and the sects. The Crown and the judiciary. The Crown and parliament. And the curiously English result was that nobody won.

Our institutions came to exist in a state of dynamic tension. Not that we are "committed to diversity" but that it became clear it was easier and probably better to live and let live. It wasn't the same in continental Europe, where different estates frequently managed to win a supremacy. When revolutionaries got hold of the State, the subsequent crushing and purging were spectacular.

But the English thing – or the British thing, if we must – came to be that the Crown doesn't rule, the army doesn't rule, the judiciary doesn't rule, commercial corporations don't rule, the Unions don't rule, the administrative apparatus doesn't rule and Parliament doesn't rule. It's supposed to, but it doesn't.

So the optimistic view of immigrants and the host population is that there will be a struggle as things settle down, and then things will settle down. Unless of course, a new rule takes hold that allows one estate of the realm to become supreme. The political class, say, which decides to take ownership of the country's children. Then anything could happen.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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