Alternately the most amusing and depressing aspect of British politics is the periodic discussion about "British values". Having lived outside Britain for half my adult life, I have a different perspective on the subject. Firstly, I find it odd that - although the most common "value" first named in such debates is "diversity" and/or "respect for other cultures", no-one baulks at elevating our values above those of other nations. Isn't the concept that there is anything different or superior about our values the last remnant of imperialism? Especially when the "values" listed are the merest commonplaces. Honesty, openness and fair play, equality before the law, politeness and tolerance are scarcely unknown in other countries. Far from having a monopoly on them, the other cultures in which I have lived generally regard modern Britain as rather deficient.
The courteous English gentleman exists only in literature, for all practical purposes. The French nickname of "les fuckoffs" is a more accurate stereotype. I can certainly never walk down a British high street without hearing Britain's favourite verb in its transitive, reflexive, ejaculative (ooh Missus) and imperative forms. I would go so far as to say that Britain is the rudest place on Earth now. I know I sound like Colonel Mustard (in the library with the lead piping) when I note that the presence of women or children introduces no restraint now. Yet as a young man I worked on building sites with men who swore like troopers, but would never dream of doing so in the presence of a woman or child.
Nor do I think Stanley Matthews or even Dixie Dean would describe modern Britain as the home of fair play. Not only do we indulge in the professional foul but - worse - the professional dive. One wonders if RADA is involved in the FA's youth training programme these days. It is a 3D form of slander or when televised, libel but it raises no eyebrows. Since I have been following my local football team I have noticed that the fans point these actions out to the ref without any sense of moral indignation. They simply want the free kick. Indeed they speak admiringly of a well-executed cheat by their own players. Only their naivity in believing the ref is listening to the crowd marks them as incompletely cynical. If I express my mother's (and my) view that you haven't won if you cheated, I am accused of membership of Baden Powell's paramilitiary organisation or looked at as if I am simple.
Honesty, to be honest, was never our strongest suit. Politeness rather inhibited frankness and always confused the hell out of speakers of English as a Second Language. Our business people have a global reputation for dishonesty perhaps originally because they were "too polite" to raise difficult issues (such as money) until it was both unavoidable and (from most other peoples' point of view) too late. When working abroad I much preferred German to British clients. Germans would argue about my fee for weeks before instructing me, but then paid promptly on presentation of the bill. Brits would wave their hands reassuringly if I tried to discuss remuneration, but then act (RADA again?) startled when the bill arrived. They were polite, but they more often defaulted. I don't call that honest. I don't call it decent. I see no nexus with fair play. Nor do most of our foreign business partners.
I like to think I lived my business life by the ethical standards I learned at my mother's knee. Yet it took me years to understand as a compliment (rather than to be hurt by) the common remark from foreign friends and clients that I was "not very British." At first I thought they nourished a Hugh Grant stereotype of Britishness and were referencing my unfloppy hair, humble background and flat vowels. In fact, they meant I was open and honest. My British colleagues, on the other hand, were more minded to see me as "difficult".
Lying is in fact the most common activity in Britain today. In my experience, no-one returns a phone call as promised. "I will call you back" seems to be the merest verbal tic, rather like "How are you?" No-one actually expects anything to follow from either remark. The last time my bank told me they would call back I replied "I am sorry, but based on recent experience I have to assume that's a lie. I will hold until you have the information if you don't mind." The bank employee's indigation seemed to suggest RADA is involved in HSBC's training programme too.
Nor is this limited to large organisations with call centres. Everyone has to be chased and no-one is embarrassed by it. I found myself smiling approvingly when an insurance broker replied to a chasing email by saying "I am sorry you have to keep chasing me". Not sorry enough to call or email when promised, however. Today was the second Friday when I had arranged to be available for a telephone discussion with my health insurer. I am less surprised that the call never came than their representative was last week when I raised his failure to keep a promise with him. He seemed to think it rude of me, though I did it very politely.
There is much current indignation in the blogs about some LibDem Lord propositioning women. I have little time for a political party whose very name is a double lie, but as there is no suggestion that he ever failed to take "no" for an answer, the fuss seems entirely fake to me. I wonder how the poor chap was ever supposed to have consensual sex without asking a woman if she would like some? This reasonable point is being made by LibDems, but denounced as "sexist" by most political bloggers (with honourable exceptions). Next week, it will be some randy Tory or Labourite and the same things will be said from different directions. The truth is not relative, and certainly not relative to political orientation. Therefore all these utterances are lies. Perhaps there is a story here. Wake me up when it emerges. Until then, this is all just playground yah-boo and I can't be bothered.
It seems to be that, from empirical observation in the year and a half since I returned to these isles, the key "British values" are dishonesty and sloppyness. Consider Helen Szamuely's critique of art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, for example. If what she says is true, the man is not so much expressing opinions as throwing labels about. But isn't that what our public dialogue is now like?
Not one system in my new-build home worked first time. It makes no economic sense to me as the builder's profits must have been consumed in after-sales service. If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well - so that you don't have to keep coming back to do it again, as it were. It brought to mind Gardner's famous remark that
The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
Where, pray, does that leave a society that has scorned excellence altogether?
Consider the Conservative suspended from the candidate's list for making, in a passing re-tweet, the obvious point that the Nazis were Socialists. The clue's in the name guys (and in their rampant statist conduct and rather forceful central planning when in power). She has been returned to the list, presumably having promised never to be rude to a Socialist again, but what does it tell us? Socialists (many of whom were pretty big on eugenics before Hitler brought the idea into disrepute) have been distancing themselves frantically from the Nazis ever since the war. They have ruthlessly smeared by association all of us on the Right by calling fascists "extreme right" or "far right" when they are clearly far closer to them, both politically and in authoritarian temperament, than to us. Yet they are all a-quiver with indignation if somebody calls them out for their ruthless, relentless and decades-long lie. So much for honesty.
And as for tolerance, let me spare the Left for once (as they are far too easy a target on this subject). Rather consider this story. Imagine! A politician doesn't like a newspaper's readers so he refuses to talk to its journalists.
While living abroad, I watched all this develop in our political life and felt sorry for my fellow-citizens. I imagined them labouring under the yoke of political correctness; desperate to speak the truth in their yeoman minds to power. It seems I was wrong. Britain's politicians do, after all, represent British values fairly. It's the values that stink.