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We must learn to be British again

Something happened to Britain in the past fifty years or so. We were famous for not making a fuss no matter what happened and we were famous for not showing emotion. When Lord Uxbridge had his leg shot off at Waterloo, he is said to have remarked casually to the Duke of Wellington that it seemed he had lost his leg. The Duke equally casually agreed with him. Both were unruffled, neither showed much emotion.  It doesn’t matter if this story is true, because it used to express something about the British character that was true.

Until relatively recently in history death was all around us. There was a fairly high chance that a woman would die in childbirth. If she did not die, a high proportion of her children would either in infancy or from a one of the childhood diseases that still had not been cured. There were also many killer diseases that could strike at any time in adulthood. Many illnesses that can be easily cured today were simply a death sentence even fifty or sixty years ago.

British civilians and soldiers alike risked death in the two World Wars on a scale that few can even comprehend today. Most of them did so willingly and if asked how they were doing would say something like “mustn’t grumble”. We have access to this attitude in some of the films of the period. British heroes are depicted as downplaying any heroism. Death is taken in its stride and the only sign of emotion is a slight change in voice and just a hint of an alternation of expression. Grief was felt, but not in public.

It seems like another world now, this Britain with its impossibly posh accents. But if you watch Celia Johnson in This Happy Breed (1944) you see how people used to be. It may seem callous. A mother informed of a death chokes up for a second and then thanks the person who took the trouble to tell her. She goes on as before and maybe offers to make some tea. Whatever she is feeling is barely shown. We can only guess at the depth.  But this was the British character. It was this that meant that we kept going when times were tough. Unfortunately it is something that many of us lost somewhere, or perhaps never even had.

There have been rather a lot of terrible events recently. We have had terrorist attacks and now a horrible fire that has killed people in a cruel and unexpected way. Who thinks that such a thing is possible when they go to their bed?

But some perspective is necessary. We have done much to make the world safer. One hundred years ago the world of work was much more dangerous than it is today. Our homes too were much more likely to kill us. We risked illness from unrefrigerated food. Quality control did not exist and health and safety was unknown. Life expectancy was massively lower than today.

There have always been disasters. No doubt there always will be. Ships sink, planes crash, cars have accidents. We work hard to minimise risk, but we cannot eliminate it. Unfortunately mistakes are made. It is human to make mistakes. Which of us does not make many of them every day?

Whenever something bad happens today there are two reactions, something must be done and someone must be blamed. The “something must be done” mentality usually leads to something being done quickly and without much thought. Often it therefore does not help, sometimes it makes the situation worse. The “someone must be blamed” mentality frequently leads to injustice.

Who is to blame for the fire in Grenfell Tower? We don’t really know yet. There will be an inquiry which may or may not find out. It may turn out that a faulty fridge caused the fire. If the person had replaced this fridge or perhaps not bought it in the first place, then there would not have been a fire. Should this person be blamed? Perhaps he knew that the fridge was a risk and failed to replace it. Should he be punished for negligence? But which of us has never had out of date or faulty electrical equipment?

It looks as if it was a terrible mistake to renovate the tower with material that helped the fire to spread. Should we blame the firm responsible for the renovation? Did they know that it would lead to a fire? Did they intend that their work would kill people?

This really is the crucial issue in morality. Blame after all is fundamentally a moral issue. In general I want to be blamed for things that I intended to do. I think it is unjust to be blamed for something that I neither wanted nor could foresee would happen. But this is not how the law sees it. But then law often has little to do with morality and less to do with truth. It is for this reason that it is a subject that is not worth studying.

Recently a lorry was poorly maintained and crashed. Two men were convicted of manslaughter. They were nowhere near the crash when it happened, but were convicted none the less and jailed for a long time. They were responsible for maintaining the vehicle which killed people and it is for this reason they have been punished. But did they intend to kill anyone? No. Could they foresee that their actions would lead to these particular deaths? No. If their lorry had not crashed, would they have been blamed for their negligence? No. Would they have been punished? No.

There are, no doubt, many firms that poorly maintain their vehicles. Most of them get away with it. If they are caught with a faulty vehicle, the punishment will be minimal. But if that faulty vehicle kills someone, they will go to jail for a long time. It is purely a matter of luck. The intent was the same. Luck, by the way, is not a moral quality.

A few years ago someone stayed up all night and then drove home. He crashed his car and the car ended up on a railway line. This caused an accident and many people were killed. Once more the driver was sent to prison. But if he had stayed up all night, crashed his car onto the track and there had not been a train coming, he would have been barely punished at all. Which of us has never driven when tired? Which of us has never even for a second done something dangerous while driving? Well we have just been lucky.

It would be more just to punish the intent rather than the result. The person who drives while talking on a mobile should be punished the same as someone who drives while talking on a mobile and who kills someone. The intent and the negligence is the same. The punishment should be the same?

No-one intended to cause a fire in Grenfell Tower, though it may turn out that some people were negligent. But if dangerous materials were used in Grenfell Tower by one firm, they were, no doubt, used in other towers around the country. To punish one firm more for their actions because people died is unjust for their actions were the same as those of another firm that killed no-one. By all means punish negligence, but don’t punish more for something no-one could foresee and no-one wanted. Punish the intent, because I am only responsible for what I intended, not for what I did not intend.

Unfortunately however, we live in a society that always wants to blame. Sometimes this attempt to blame reaches absurd levels. Until a few days ago neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn had heard of Grenfell Tower. Neither of them knew anything about how buildings like this one have been renovated recently. Yet somehow it has been turned into a political issue.

It may turn out that corners were cut and the people responsible for either building or renovating Grenfell Tower tried to save money. Sorry folks, but we live in a world where we have to try to save money. The reason for this is long-term. We spend more than we earn. I wish we didn’t but we do. This is the fault of both main political parties who have been in government.

We have an excess of demand on housing in Britain especially in London. The reason we have this demand is that a lot of people want to live in London. There are jobs there. London draws people from everywhere. The resulting pressure on accommodation has been caused by the policies of both political parties in the past decades. If there were not this pressure, it might have been possible to tear down dangerous tower blocks decades ago, but in the present circumstances this is not possible. We have a duty to house everybody and must make do with the housing available. I wish that this were not so, but demand on housing especially in London is outstripping supply and has been for decades.

So if we are looking for the causes of this fire we could find them just as much in the fact that our country has been living beyond its means and has struggled to house everyone who wants to come here as in the fact that this particular building was poorly maintained and renovated.

This shows the folly of trying to turn tragedy into a political issue. Those on the Right, just as much as the Left, could try to take political advantage of this fire. But it is seriously lacking in taste to do so. Every government and every council has to be make choices about how to spend their money. If you spend too much on one thing you don’t have enough for something else. But spending money won’t necessarily save you from disaster. Unfortunately we have to learn from experience. We have made progress in safety only because we have learned from mistakes and turned catastrophes into lessons.

Those who have lost their lives and their friends and families have the country’s sympathy. But if the Far Left try to hijack that sympathy they may rapidly find that it diminishes. Neither Theresa May nor her Government are in any way to blame for this fire.

People are upset and angry, but this is not the British way to deal with disaster. Shouting at the Queen and asking her what she is going to do is ludicrous. Chasing Theresa May in a threatening way is unjustified and not how British people respond to affliction.

Theresa May is focussing on practical ways to help. She may not be wailing and gnashing her teeth, nor ripping her clothes to shreds. But this is because she is British and from a generation that did not do these things. Until recently all of us were like this. Now unfortunately we are few. It would be much better if there were rather less emotion instead of rather more. Let us accept that disaster will always periodically happen. There is nothing we can do about this. It is futile to look for blame for these deaths. These people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as much as some people were beneath a bomb in 1940 while others were not.

When emotions are less raw we will be able to look calmly at what can be done to make our housing safer, but do not think that we can live in a world that is risk free. We have greater life expectancy than anyone in history. We are less likely to die because of war, disease or accident. But someone right now is making a mistake, because he is human, and that mistake may kill someone. I might make that mistake, you may make it too.

Blame is like a stone. It is very easy to throw it. But which of us is without blame for something. Go then and blame no more.  Rather reflect that in the end we have no choice but to accept misfortune and we must put away anger, for rage solves no problems but rather makes them worse. Better by far to learn how British people used to deal with tragedy quietly and without much fuss. In dark days there is a comfort in knowing that we have been through worse, much worse. This is what it is to be British. We must learn to be that way again. Let us “grieve not, rather find, strength in what remains behind.”

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/we-must-learn-to-be-british-again.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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