For all the malfunctions of the past few years, it’s assumed the structure of British society can’t possibly be refashioned
O Britain! O Albion! Why must misfortune dog you at every turn? There really is no more unfathomable question of the age, with the possible exception of wondering why John Travolta attracts so many lawsuits from disgruntled masseurs. The most recent years have visited all manner of calamities upon the populace of this septic isle, from the banks, to the politicians’ expenses, to the phone hacking, to the banks (and possibly the politicians) again. Trailing in the wake of these disasters come the postmortems, the inquiries judicial and parliamentary, and the anger that never fails to spill over into mindless apathy.
Yet there is a nagging sense that the official reports never really get to the absolute bottom of things, perhaps afraid of what they may find down there. Even in your most lunatic fantasies, can you imagine any sort of inquiry into one of our recent shaftings concluding something along the following lines? “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Britain’. Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of British culture: the worship of money by successive governments; our essential beatenness; our devotion to just bleeding tolerating it.”
I suspect you can’t. No, without wishing to pre-empt the conclusions of questers from Lord Justice Leveson to the Treasury committee to the people sighing “why are our overlords such arses?” into their pints, I can’t see it happening. But something equivalent has occurred in Japan this week, where an eye-poppingly unsparing report into the Fukushima nuclear disaster has apportioned a significant share of blame to the Japanese national character itself. “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan’,” runs the devastating verdict of expert Japanese investigators.
“Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to sticking with the programme.”
Well. Did you ever hear the like? Certainly you never did in this country. In fairness, you used not to hear the like in Japan. I’m sure none of us wishes to get bogged down in too many cliches of national character – although the Japanese did start it – but the nation gained something of a reputation for denial with that deathless line in the emperor’s second world war surrender broadcast. You may recall his imperial majesty would only concede “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. Elsewhere, Kyoto’s temple circuit features a huge and beautiful shrine to soldiers “who gave their lives fighting for a peaceful Japan” in that same conflict, which some may feel vaguely misrepresents certain questionably defensive manoeuvres in, say, Hawaii.
But just look at their candour now. Perhaps this is where 20 years of economic stagnation gets you – in which case we might expect British self-reproach to kick in some time in the late 2020s. Until then, the form book suggests that we will continue to avoid considering the possibility that we get the press and the politicians – and by extension of the latter, the bankers – that we deserve.
Hundreds of MPs who gamed the expenses system have already been re-elected once, and many of them will be again in 2015. Leveson’s conclusions will doubtless make no mention of the millions who devoured fairly unjustifiable stories about people’s private lives, and to whose likely provenance they may have exhibited their own version of wilful blindness – and anyway, most of those who read the News of the World now gladly buy the Sunday Sun. I fear no significant number of customers will move their money to ethical banks. We may do sound and fury rather better than the Japanese, but the tale of the tape suggests we stick just as reliably to the programme.
For all the systemic malfunctions of our institutions in the past few years, alas, the prevalent assumption seems to be that the structure of British society couldn’t possibly be refashioned. And it certainly can’t be unless reproach of those in authority, which we have down to a fine-ish art, is realistically widened to reproach of those who continue to put them there. Which is to say, most of us, one way or another. Britain appears many years off the collective realisation that at some level, it allows these things to keep happening to it via its apathetic failure to revolt sufficiently when they do.
Reading the reports of the Fukushima investigation, you realise it is quite something to watch a nation critique that which it perceives to be its character. Dominique Strauss-Kahn‘s arrest provoked a bout of cultural introspection in a France that traditionally prided itself on ignoring politicians’ sexual foibles. The cases of imprisoned girls Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl provoked anguished examination of Austria’s ask-no-questions society. Even this nation embarked on a brief and misguided attempt to explain the inexplicably hideous James Bulger murder in terms of moral decay.
Yet in most countries, away from emotive, physically repulsive criminal horrors, the introspection stops. It certainly has in Britain, which doesn’t so much rage against the machine as get tetchy at it before losing interest until the next time.
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