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March 29, 2007

Good people have become a defeated class in Blair's Britain, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple believes that good people have become a defeated class in Blair's Britain. Here he explains why. The views expressed here are those of Theodore Dalrymple, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

In his powerful little polemic directed at the Prime Minister and all his works, the journalist and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft implies that one of Mr Blair's motives for going to war was an eye to his post-retirement value on the very lucrative American lecture circuit. Of course, such a thing cannot be proved because human motivation is always opaque, even - or especially - to the actors themselves, but few would deny that the PM shows a greater avidity for vulgar high living than any recent holder of his office.

The general puzzle of human motivation notwithstanding, Mr Blair presents us with a special puzzle all his own. Although by no means an interesting man, in the sense that Doctor Johnson was an interesting man, we all find ourselves thinking about him at frustrating length. He is like a tune, neither loved nor lovely, that one cannot get out of one's head.

In some ways he appears to resemble that product of the diseased communist imagination, particularly beloved of Che Guevara, the New Man, at least in the sense that he does not resemble previous generations. As Mr Wheatcroft points out, Mr Blair is neither honest nor dishonest: he escapes entirely the criteria by which such a judgement of him could be made. To argue with him that what he says or does now is incompatible with what he said or did yesterday is about as fruitful as arguing a paranoid man out of his belief that the secret services of many countries are after him, or that his neighbours are listening to his thoughts through a screening device that they have invented. In short, Mr Blair, having been born with Original Virtue, suffers from delusions of honesty.

It is, of course, a matter for debate whether a people always gets the government, and therefore the governors, it deserves. What people could have deserved Pol Pot or Francisco Macias Nguema? Yet leaders grow out of societies and a social context: they do not fall like bolts from the blue. I think that Mr Blair both represents and is a cause of an acceleration in a change in character of the British people. He is far from unique in his ability to find the happy coincidence between his thirst for money and power and the highest moral principles.

Anyone who has had dealings with the British public service in the last ten or fifteen years will know that the principle qualities required for advancement within it are unceasing sanctimony, brazenness, a craven dedication to orders from on high combined with an ability to justify a complete change of direction at a moment's notice, and a capacity for bullying those lower down the feeding chain, or (to change the metaphor slightly) those jostling for a place at the trough. A rigid self-control is required to suppress any independence of mind or a tendency to consider the ethics of orders to be implemented. A good public servant must now, as never before, be able to present cancelled operations as an inestimable benefit to the patients concerned, while at the same time spotting niches for a little commercial activity of his own, whether it be by using the rules of employment to his own financial benefit or setting up a consultancy to advise his former employers.

I recently met a public servant who had risen up the ranks and had about him a triumphalist air, as of a successful revolutionary. He had arrived in bureaucratic heaven. He travelled to London on the train first class every week (a ticket costs the equivalent of an annual working class holiday in the sun), and attended sumptuous functions there attended by others such as himself, under the impression that by so doing he was working. Had he been a little boy recounting a visit to Father Christmas in a department store, it would have been disarming: as it was, I found it profoundly alarming.

Here was the voice of militant mediocrity, who expressed himself even in private in the language of Health Service meetings, believing that his large salary and high living at public expense were all for the good of those who paid for them. Just as the countries of Eastern Europe once had their little Stalins, so every department of every branch of the British public service has its little Blairs.

Such a development could not have taken place overnight. My wife, who is French, was attracted to the culture of this country because, as late as 1979 or 1980, the people, including administrators in hospitals, were obviously upright, whatever else their failings might have been. A quarter of a century later, all that has changed; deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying have become the ruling characteristics of the British people, or at least those of them who are in charge of something. The old virtues - stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth - can still be found, but only in people who are of no importance, at least in the public administration. If I may put it very strongly, good people are like a defeated class in this country.

How has this all happened? I think that the spread of tertiary education has had quite a lot to do with it. First, it created a very large class of people who had to be found white collar jobs, since there is nothing more dangerous for a society's stability than a large number of unemployed people who consider themselves to be intellectuals. The obvious way to absorb such people was the expansion of the public service.

Second, the expansion of tertiary education resulted in the over-intellectualisation of society. Unfortunately, the average or median level of intellectual activity was very poor, but it meant that the concept of virtue in society changed. Henceforth, virtue was not the exercise of discipline, self-control or benevolence for the sake of others, but the expression of the right opinions of the moment. This could not have been better illustrated than in the case of the Conservative front-bencher, a former colonel who was very much liked and respected by his black soldiers, several of whom he promoted, and who defended him vigorously, who said something marginally unacceptable (its truth or untruth was not important), and had to be sacked as a consequence. Sticks and stones may not break my bones, but words will always hurt me.

When words become the test of virtue, they also become the masks of vice. That is why sanctimony and ruthless self-interest are such powerful allies.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.


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Ive often wondered if the turning point was in the 70s - the 60s' claim that everything should be about Me, Me, Me was borne out as the miners' strikes, the 3-day week, the winter of discontent probably made people feel that they might as well look after number one, as everyone else was obviously doing so. Some people blame the Thatcher years, but that seems too late to me. What happened then was just that the already-corrupted got older and assumed positions of power.

Posted by: dearieme at March 29, 2007 08:38 PM
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I am unconvinced that tertiary education inevitably to massive self-perpetuating bureaucracy such as described here.

Ireland, for instance, has massively increase in such eduation while avoiding the excesses of such politically correct sanctimonious bureaucrats.

Though perhaps it's Ireland's future too...one only has to listen to any Irish Green party member...

Posted by: Brian at March 30, 2007 11:11 AM
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Even more alarming is the fact that such a person as described by Mr Dalrymple is now given the free hand to virtually choose his own team and obviously chooses those whose views accord with his.

"The voice of militant mediocrity" indeed, hectoring insistently that there is no right or wrong; no good, better or best; resentful of anything that hints of independence of thought and ruthlessly ensuring only stultifying conformity.

Just as one I came across mocked and jested after the last elections enquiring "are you thinking what we are thinking," so I thought to mock him with the same line in the wake of 7/7, but I thought better of it! Conformists have no sense of humour you know....

Posted by: AdeOluOla at March 30, 2007 02:20 PM
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Any people duly separated from the simple struggle for survival for very long become cows forthwith. We in the West have had that misfortune, while our enemies, thanks to their own rotten culture, have not.

Posted by: Craig at April 6, 2007 08:28 PM
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The "turning point" was undoubtedly during the 'there is no such thing as society' years (it was said, twice, and every word of it was meant). "New" blatcherism hastened and completed the process.

Posted by: cronyblatcher at April 14, 2007 10:44 PM
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Sadly, you have also just described the public service culture as it exists in Australia now.

While "deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying" are now the way of life, and the sure path to promotion, one has to think very, very carefully before making a joke to anyone, because incorrect attitudes are the only thing considered to be morally wrong in this culture.

Posted by: SueB at April 15, 2007 07:53 AM
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"The "turning point" was undoubtedly during the 'there is no such thing as society' years (it was said, twice, and every word of it was meant). "New" blatcherism hastened and completed the process."

I'm not the world's greatest fan of Mrs Thatcher, but to put her quote in context:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.

It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

As she pointed out, the rot had well and truly set in by this time. But it's much more convenient (and these days fashionable) to blame her for singlehandedly turning Britain into a nation of selfish egotists.

Blair's failure to arrest behavioural decline (indeed, his patent success in worsening matters) has been the predictable result of his fervour for Left-liberal social engineering. However, rather than acknowledge this patent truth (evidence for which has been recorded passim by Dalrymple), socialists now denounce Blair as a false prophet, claiming he's a Thatcherite to his bones.

You've got to laugh.

Posted by: Paul H. at August 9, 2007 04:59 PM
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