It is a tough question to ask and even tougher to answer. It is the kind of question that circles my head like a vulture flying up above eyes always ready in case it spots carrion. In my case the prey is a better understanding of the country in which I chose to live many years ago. One of the stages in the process of integration for immigrants is to cast off old prejudices. Though exciting, this is also a daunting exercise. Prejudices sometimes provide a comfort zone even if in the long term they cause untold harm. Rid yourself of them and you suddenly have to deal with a different mind-set. As it is the case for me now.
One of the myths I always heard about Britain when I still lived in Cuba was that it was a hard-core, right-wing, individualistic society with very little space for liberal ideas. True, these notions were based on a narrow, Castro-led, ideologically-driven agenda that sought to masquerade socialism’s excesses with capitalism’s flaws. My lectures in uni on history, life and culture in the UK reinforced this thesis, ramming home the point that the United Kingdom was all about hooligans, the monarchy and the stiff upper lip.
As soon as I arrived in London and after an initial cultural shock I made it my mission to try to get under the skin of this country. Even if it took me a lifetime. By the looks of it this will take me three or four more lifetimes and I don’t believe in re-incarnation (at least re-incarnation in the sense of coming back as a human being. The soul and all that, let’s leave it for another post, shall we?). That meant that I had to confront my old prejudices head on and expose myself to concepts with which I might not feel comfortable.
The first idea I chucked away was that Britons were inherently right-wing. There is a strong liberal tradition in this country. From John Stuart Mill and his defence of the freedom of the individual to Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan who introduced the National Health Service in 1948 the UK has a progressive tradition of which to boast. That brought me some solace as I particularly found myself on this side of the social and political spectrum.
Yet, with each passing year I noticed a phenomenon that continues to this day to puzzle me, hence this column. At the same time that I noticed a forward-thinking and left-of-centre tendency in British society I also spotted a similarly conservative mind-set. This conservative trait was small “c” conservative and not linked necessarily to Tory/Conservative party values. It is rather conservative-lite. A low-level, unobtrusive, tucked-away-in-a-corner type. More related to the Latin “conservatus”, meaning someone disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions than Cameron’s privatisation-obsessed political manifesto. In fact, many of these small “c” conservative attitudes were sported by people who would otherwise call themselves liberals.
Take the monarchy, for instance. If there were to be a vote tomorrow on whether the UK should become a republic or carry on being led by a queen or king, I think we could see a similar mood to the recent one in Scotland on the Yes or No vote. However, in the absence of a plebiscite of this kind (and I can’t see one happening in my lifetime) most people in this nation, even those who hate the monarchy and what it stands for, are happy to coast along with it. This is the sort of conservatism I am referring to. I know there is a pro-republic movement in Britain but I do not think this has necessarily translated into an overt call for the immediate termination of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor’s reign and the abolition of royalty. For some reason it is OK to keep Lizzie on the throne. After all she is only there in the background, quiet most of the time, keeping herself to herself, not butting in. Put your placards down (if you went as far as to make one), calm down and have a cuppa.
|Beautiful contradiction: liberal and conservative|
Another example of how this small “c” conservative attitude manifests itself is the way the UK sells itself to people from abroad. Both to visitors to GB and when it exports its culture to other countries. In this case what gets trotted out straight away are stereotypes, of which the mumbling, stammering Hugh Grant figure is the more easily identifiable. Implicit in this cultural offering is the class system, a structure that although politically many of us (born here or not) oppose, socially we accept.
For what are we doing when we lap up the Downton Abbeys, the Upstairs Downstairs and many other period dramas of similar DNA? We are tacitly agreeing with a status quo that is more interested in preserving the same power structure than in bringing in much-needed radical changes.
There is no right or wrong in this post. Small “c” conservatism is prevalent even amongst those of us who were not born here. Every time an independent shop or a small café closes down I mourn their disappearance as if they had been part of my childhood landscape. One of the reasons why I think there is an in-built conservative trait in the UK is due to the cultural and historical wealth this country has. If I may touch briefly on Politics (capital “P” there) and with the recent Clacton-on-Sea result still fresh on my mind, this is one of the reasons why the far-right UK Independent Party (Ukip. I know that some will disagree with me on the “far-right” bit but to me Ukip is the BNP with suits instead of boots. Thugs with suits, you could say) has done so well in the last year. They have managed to tap into that area of the British psyche that is still firmly moored to that distant past.
As are the hipsters of Shoreditch and Dalston and the “spornosexuals” of Essex. Though modern-looking, they, too, are moored to a past that perpetuates the “upstairs” and “downstairs” structure. That past is present in the vintage fixed-gears bikes that populate the roads of Hoxton and Hackney (irony included in the ride) and the last night of the Proms and its sea of Union Jacks celebrating Britain. The same sea of Union Jacks celebrating the marriage of Kate and William. The same sea of Union Jacks rising in unison to cheer on Mo Farah at the London 2012 Olympics. As I mentioned before, there is no right or wrong in this post. The small “c” conservative attitude is about preserving institutions (even when sometimes people might not agree with them) and keeping certain traditions alive. For me personally it is another small step in understanding the United Kingdom. Now, if only I could rely on those three or four more lifetimes to finish the job.
Occasionally I like sharing passages of the books I read in the same way other posters do on their blogs. This time I would like to bring to your attention a beautiful sentence I read recently in The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel. For me this was a re-read as I had already devoured the text in Spanish when I was a teenager. However, on reading the novel a second time now I realised that my younger self had perhaps missed out on some of the book’s better-known traits, i.e., its humour and lyrical language. I hope you enjoy it. Have a good week.
The thunderstorm had passed without leaving a trace, and a multicolored rainbow had formed an arch over the entire city and was drinking water from the Moscow River.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 15th October at 11:59pm (GMT)