Recent political events in Britain have made me think about the notion of "tolerance." Most Brits, asked to define "Britishness" would mention this quality. Having lived in other countries, I am not so sure we are entitled to lay claim to it. Most attempts to create a more tolerant society in Britain seem to lead to new forms of intolerance. I am beginning to think that puritanism is the real defining quality of Britishness.
Take sexuality. When I was a student politician, gay rights were a major issue. But they were an issue on which then twenty-somethings (now forty-somethings) were, and are, completely united. Gay people could no more choose to be straight than straights could choose to be gay. They were entitled to equal respect for their orientation. Society would be healthier if they were allowed to be open about their sexuality. All fine and tolerant. Two decades on, however, "homophobia" is an allegation made far more frequently than it was then. The bar has been raised. To be tolerant, one must now accept that primary school children should be taught about homosexuality. My wife recently met a young teacher who was emigrating to New Zealand because she didn't feel she should have to do that - and was being accused of "homophobia". To be tolerant one must denounce or even try to repress the ancient religions which - understandably - are not able to adapt what they believe to be the word of God, Allah or Whomever to current thinking. We have moved from tolerance to puritanical repression. We have just changed the target. Perhaps it is time to suggest that homosexuals will only truly become equal members of our society when they cease to see themselves as victims.
Take race. The recent unfortunate remarks of Sir Ian Blair have caused a debate. I visited, as I often do, the BBC's "Have your Say" pages on its news website to get a feel for the range of opinion. The comments posted by the public appeared to divide (as far as one can tell from the scant information about people posting comments) on racial lines. White Britain believes that it is discriminated against; that any black person who is attacked is the victim of racist violence, whereas any white victim is merely an unfortunate statistic. Person after person commented that, when an assailant was being hunted, the public could only tell if he was from an ethnic minority if his colour was not mentioned. Black and Asian posters, however, are convinced of entirely the opposite. Whatever else this means, it proves the races are not moving closer together. They are in separate social "silos" holding opinions which cannot be reconciled. Significantly, people of all races now seem to crave the all-important status of victim. Is that surprising? Government spending is systematically skewed, is it not, towards "the most vulnerable members of society?" That is clearly the team to be on.
Take education. My generation was and is, Right and Left, universally hostile to discrimination against the socially-disadvantaged. Those not lucky enough to afford private education should have the opportunity to attend the best universities. We still believe that, but - again - the envelope is being pushed. Truth to tell, there were more State school pupils at Oxbridge in the bad old days of grammar schools, because they gave access to a good education for talented members of the working class. Thatcher's cabinet had more State-educated members than Blair's for the same reason. Nothing has inhibited social mobility in Britain more than Comprehensive Schools. Nothing. Yet they have become, with the NHS, the second sacred cow of British politics. Before speaking about education every politician, from Right or Left, must begin with a ritual denunciation of "academic selection." As educational standards plummet, so politicians seek to force the universities to lower entry standards selectively so that my privately-educated daughters are openly required to achieve higher standards than pupils who went to the sink Comprehensive my wife and I attended. We have moved from being against discrimination to being in favour of discrimination - against someone else. We have moved, again, to reward "victims" so that victimhood becomes a desired status.
This cannot surely be right? If vulnerability is the new aristocracy, how likely is that to promote social and economic progress?