Sunday, 6 April 2014

This is 2014 not Downton Abbey: Time to make class and snobbery history

© The Spectator

Britain, in many ways, remains a great nation and, yet, in so many other respects is trapped by a fair amount of cultural inconsistency. The run-up to the vote on Scottish Independence has got me thinking about British identity and what is at the root cause of so much of our irrational and idiosyncratic behaviour. Seemingly, unbeknown to much of the contemporary world, the UK has actually been a unified country (1707 (Scotland) and 1800 (Ireland, now Northern Ireland)) for much longer than some of its well-known European counterparts like Germany (1871) and Italy (1815-1871).

British identities are largely influenced by countless notions that are culturally entrenched in our generalised ideas about class, types and regional stereotypes, and, yet, have little tangible basis in reality.

Britain’s deeply saturated class culture means that even a supposedly free-thinking media seems wedded to using class stereotypes to illustrate its points in what could be argued as a terrifically lazy manner.

I hear all sorts of ridiculous things from English people about Scottish and Welsh people; and equally peculiar things said by Scots and Welsh people about the English; and the worst is usually exchanged between Northerners and Southerners. But, when all is said and done, deep down we have this strangely committed affection for each other – demonstrated at London 2012. The thing I find most odd, is that, like me, most of us probably have family connections to all four corners of the UK (and beyond) – making us a much more integrated nation than we will admit to ourselves from day to day.

However, what seems to divide us the most is not geographical borders, but the British obsession with class. A lot of cultural, social and political discourse in this county is reduced down to class-driven public debates.

To be clear, when I refer to class and snobbery, I don’t just mean views of people who live in stately homes or on council estates, I am also referring to the act whereby one individual preforms a detailed analysis of every little part of another person’s being. No matter what part of the class spectrum we fall in, when we Britons interact with others, we have a habit of automatically “placing” them based on an internal analytical process of cultural assumptions and judgements. (I would confidently bet that many of you will be doing just that in relation to my background as you read this blog – right?).

And of course, we all know very well that these judgements are based on: your accent, your language, the colour of your skin, your gender, your masculinity and femininity, your religion, where you were brought up, where you went to school, which university you attended, where you live, where you shop (Asda, Harrods or Waitrose), which newspaper you read (Daily Mail, Financial Times, Guardian, tabloids), how you dress, your general appearance, who your parents are, who their ancestors were, your titles, what job you do, which car you drive, what your house looks like, where that residence is located, what postcode is at the bottom of your address, whether you live in the country or a city, which religion you follow, how many children you have, how old you were when you had children and so forth.

This all reads rather crudely and uncivilised when written in black and white, and yet civility is supposed be the substance on which British civilisation was built.

The aforementioned cultural process seems to have been passed down from one generation to the next and is, therefore, a residue of imperial snobbery, which really ought to have died out in the 1920s world of Downton Abbey with the rise of the labour movements. If that wasn’t enough, then, the great levellers of the world wars should have stamped out this relatively meaningless British ritual. And yet it persists to only hold back our collective potential. As a nation, we are our own worst enemy.

I reached maturity in the New Labour years of the 1990s and onward. This was a time by which one would have hoped that Britain would have got over its obsession with class. However, I cannot count the number of times I have heard people use phrases like “he should know his place” or “she should know her station in life”. Even recently, I have heard people talk about those from the south and describe them as all being Tory-toffs, as if there are no ordinary people south of Birmingham; and likewise I have listened to others rant on about all the “dole-scum” socialists in the North, as if only Northerners and socialists can fall on hard times.

To be honest, I am kind of tired of hearing these binary, inaccurate, lazy, polarised overtones being espoused. In this new millennium, we should be so much further beyond class than we are. We should be looking at one another as unique non-classable individuals and thus take each other on a case by case basis, without passing unnecessary judgements.

How exactly can you class people when one considers the significant mix of diversity embodied in Britain in this day and age?

For example, I have described myself as, an American influenced British, academic, writer, ex-ballet dancing Tory politician, Christian, openminded, yet somewhat traditional, logical and pragmatic thinker, with a distaste for snobbery (regular and inverted) and a diverse life and career experience on both sides of the Atlantic, who enjoys arts, media and technology and marine and country sports. I am for peace, sustainability, opportunity for all, a classless secular society, gender/LGBT and racial equality; with Eurosceptic tendencies - believing in freedom, free will, free speech, free enterprise, personal responsibility, philanthropy, loving both thy neighbour and thy enemies, legislation to protect vulnerable groups and well state-funded healthcare, education and arts sectors. I could go on…!

Now, if you focused down on one fragment of that description, and took it out of context, you could get the wrong impression of me and place incorrect stereotypes onto my character (believe me people do).

If you know me as a church attending libertarian Eurosceptic Tory politician, you might place me in the right-winger (about to jump to UKIP) category; or if you know me as a free thinking former ballet dancer who is in favour of a secularised and equalised society, then you might place me in an anti-Christian socialist-leaning category. But the truth and reality is, I, like every other individual, am constituted from a countless number of influences that makes placing me within categories, classes and labels virtually impossible and totally inappropriate when you have a deeper understanding of the holistic fabric of the individual.

What is perhaps more pertinent and concerning is that so many of us have emotional and irrational reactions to our judgements of others.

I know lots of different types of wonderful people, many of whom like to think of themselves as good, nice people. Some like to do work for charity and they like to do things to “help the environment”. Some of these same people also like to judge others who don’t approach life in exactly the same way as them - and can say some surprisingly unkind things about people who don’t ride the same high horse. Equally, I know people who proclaim to be Christian libertarians and yet espouse often hurtful racist and homophobic views that would infringe on the freedoms of others.

No matter how justified such people think they are in their views, there is something sinister about their attitude to others and often their emotional reactions to human differences leads to an automatic or instant dislike.

The underbelly of British culture is dominated by such distastes for seemingly opposing groups. If you go to a public school it is likely you could have a certain negative attitude towards people who live on a council estate. If you live on a council estate you could have a dislike for those who go to a “posh” school – perhaps not recognising that some of those people could have worked hard to get a scholarship to attend a public school and be from the very same council estate in which you live.

These very real British attitudes that we see and hear every day are rooted in fear, lack of understanding and jealously as a result of our unequal society. It leads to bullying on estates, in playgrounds, on university campuses, in the workplace, on the sports fields and indeed in the House of Commons. The essence of this uncivilised distaste for one another grows in to clashes and fights in our towns and cities – and much of it seems to be rooted in class and snobbery.

I do not know how we stamp out these undesirable and negatively-charged cultural leftovers from another age. But what I do know is that we need to be having calm and honest public conversations about it in order that people from all walks of life can begin to better understand one another.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Time for the separation of church and state in Britain?

In 2008, when commenting on the prospect of the disestablishment of the Church of England (CofE), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said that it would not be "the end of the world".

Therefore, is it not the appropriate time for the separation of church and state in Britain (England & Scotland)?

© National Secular Society
The Church and Britishness

In 2014, should not church leaders from all strands of Christianity, and indeed other faiths, be afforded the same opportunities (a level playing field) to interact with their communities? Perhaps if the CofE were to be disestablished, its members, not just local leaders, would be more greatly compelled to interact more deeply in their communities in better organised outreach for those that need it, instead of being an inward looking organisation that often seems more concerned with its internal differences than rolling up its sleeves and being Christ-like in the communities that so desperately need unconditional love from their fellow countrymen.

Some, many of whom rarely set foot in a church, would like to hold on to an established CofE because it is often viewed as a quintessential part of British culture. But I am not sure this really has anything to do with "Britishness" anymore. British identity has changed immeasurably since WWII, and I believe that it would be best for Britain if the CofE caught-up.

The CofE in its current form is limited because it is tethered to the state. Wales and Northern Ireland are also British but they don't have established churches and, culturally, they do just fine. They remain just as British as the rest of the UK (if not more if the call for Scottish Independence is anything to go by).

Disestablishment doesn't mean the CofE stops being part of the British way of life - far from it. It allows the CofE more freedom to be the church Christ called it to be and frees the state and the other corners of the UK from being represented in the House of Lords by church leaders of only one faith. In 2014, it seems anti-democratic to me having representatives from one faith with a monopoly in Parliament. Surely democracy is at the heart of what it means to be British in this new millennium?

Disestablish the Church, but keep the Monarchy

The CofE is very different to the Monarchy. It is inked to the Monarchy yes – but it is not the same type of institution. The CofE is something that extends into local communities. The fabric of England is a patchwork of established CofE parishes which means it has an institutionalised responsibility but doesn't always offer itself openly to serve all members of those communities.

The Monarchy is something behind which all with British interests worldwide can engage, because, when compared with the CofE, it is more of a notion than something tangible. The Monarchy is a symbol that unifies most of us - even for many in the Commonwealth and UK Territories.

The CofE has become a disconnected organisation that is not doing the type of work in communities that other churches are, because it is so tied up with hierarchy; fighting internal political factions; avoiding truth and honesty; its role in the state; deciding which groups of people to ordain and/or make bishops; endless bureaucracy; legal responsibilities; ecclesiastical courts; being judge and jury on state social issues; and saving buildings etc. In this day and age it should be a faith based organisation that is focused on the needs of its local and global communities. Until disestablishment happens, I do not see the church changing to meet the needs of modern Britain – or effectively lead a worldwide Communion. The American Episcopal Church has been pondering whether to leave the Communion, as have other churches. The CofE is sending out mixed messages because it does not have the freedom to be the church it should be as the leader of a worldwide faith of 70 million people.

There is so much work to be done in terms of human rights within even Commonwealth countries and the CofE should be leading such campaigns, not playing the shrinking violet.

As an institution, it conducts itself with an arrogance and sense of entitlement that is not evident in other parts of the Anglican Communion, like e.g. currently in the American Episcopal Church.

Fears about the collapse of the Church and the Anglican Communion

I have come to the thinking that we cannot all be held to ransom because of ifs and buts and what might or might not happen. Above all, Christianity begins with the freedom to believe; and the freedom to choose; and the freedom to serve. Therefore, established churches fly in the face of that. If people in this country believe in the principles of free will, freedom and democracy, then disestablishment of the CofE from 2014 onward is really the only true way forward.

If the church folds because of disestablishment or because its priests stop doing their Christian duty, then that is on their conscience and would indeed tell us much about their faith. Do we really want a state church that is built on a sham? Let’s put the church to the test and see if it can stand on its own ecclesiastical foundations.

I have many friends who are CofE priests, many of whom are disillusioned by the restraints and confines they find themselves under. Freeing the church and those who lead it would only offer new opportunities for renewed spiritual growth in a newly emancipated Christian organisation.

We as a nation cannot be held collectively accountable and kept in the dark ages because some clergy need to be propped-up by the responsibility of being part of an established institution. That in itself goes against free will. Some clergy simply go through the motions of just doing a job – rather than live their vocation.

There are many examples of clergy and churches who actively exclude members of the community through, prejudice, snobbery, class and anachronistic traditions. Therefore, we cannot say that the CofE as an established church serves all parishioners in every parish. In fact, it is unrealistic to expect it to. But the pretence that it does really ought to cease.

Church Factions

I personally don't like to broad-brush groups. I have nothing against any strand of faith including Evangelical Christians. In fact, I have myself attended evangelical churches. I know some truly lovely Christ-like evangelical Christians. I know some very unkind ones too. I have also found the same in the Catholic wing of the CoE.

But when mean-spirited Christians act without care and consideration for how they might impact on others – as is regularly witnessed in the evangelical wing of the CofE - they are displaying the very reason the CofE should no longer be an established institution.

There are many people who use the CofE as a vehicle for their views to disenfranchise others, which goes against the central arguments for keeping it as an established church.

The Episcopal Church in the US split and, I would argue, it is now better for it. Congregants from both factions now know more or less exactly where they are when they step through the door; and generally know who they are sitting next to and what types of things they might hear in a sermon.

England should not live in fear of doing what most of us ultimately and deep down know is the right thing to do just because it might be a bit painful.

There is too much emotional connection to the notion of a CofE that really no longer exists. The sooner we all mourn its passing and think rationally and proactively about it the sooner the CofE can get on with rebuilding as a church - instead of being a state institution. Furthermore, the state can get on with being free and fair to all faiths. It has worked just fine in the US for a couple of hundred years. Why should Britain be so different?