Again, sorry this is a long rant – I am in a bad mood. Comments are welcome though.
Once upon a time, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was renowned the world over for the way the population handled hardship and adversity. The “Stiff Upper Lip” was such a powerful stereotype it still endures today.
During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the British Stiff Upper Lip was heavily put to the test. The century began with a hammering in Africa, followed by the loss of almost an entire generation on the fields of Flanders and the Somme. The interwar years were wrought with economic depression which was only relieved when the deaths of the second world war reduced the population enough for there to be more jobs. Entire cities were destroyed (Coventry) and most major population centres endured nightly bombing raids.
The end of the war only brought limited respite for the British handling of adversity. Crippled by economic debt and the ravages of the war, the Empire collapsed piece by piece. Britain was quickly over taken in the world power stakes by the upstarts (America for example 🙂 ), and to all intents and purposes became a secondary nation on the world stage. The somewhat anomalous status as permanent member of the UNSC is down to possession of nuclear weapons and nothing else. The break up of empire was accompanied by various military defeats (Suez, Korea), while the victories were sometimes hollow (Borneo, Malaysia). The apparent collapse spurred domestic agitators into more and more violence until by the mid 1960s, Northern Ireland was not dissimilar to Bosnia thirty years later.
Throughout this all the stiff upper lip remained. The ideas about what made “British” society were upheld and, generally, life went on. If you had proposed a national identity card scheme in 1970 you would have been laughed at for the rest of your life.
The last three decades of the twentieth century seem to have had the most, strangest, effect on the national character. Prior to this, obviously mostly based on historical accounts and newspaper archives, there was little difference in the “mindset” of the “average person” (I know…) between say 1880 and 1960. Very little, if anything changed. The 1960s seem to have led to a “brave new world” in many ways.
Terrorism is the obvious marker to look at. The UK has endured terrorist attacks from domestic extremists for the entire twentieth century. Fortunately for the English, most of these have been on Scottish, Irish or Welsh soil and, largely, failed to register on the radar of public conciousness. The 1970s put paid to that. Studies by the University of Ulster (CAIN) indicate that nearly 2000 people died at the hands of the Provisional IRA alone. Of this figure over a thousand were British soldiers or police, the rest were civilians or other paramilitaries. While the other paramilitary groups were not as “successful” as PIRA, they certainly accounted for a lot of deaths, and a final toll in the region of 4000 is not unrealistic.
In the post 11 Sept world we “live in,” that may seem like a small number. The reality is though, this is from a much smaller population base and the deaths were not a “one off” spectacular. These were people killed at home in front of their families, blown up while shopping and so on. The resulting fear is not of a big event, but a constant threat to daily life.
On the mainland, pretty much the only reaction taken was to remove litter bins from train stations. The essential idea was that combating terrorism would only work by not changing society to match the terrorist’s desires. Successive left and right wing governments never introduced a nationwide ID card scheme. Draconian laws were introduced but mostly shelved under the massive weight of public protest. It was quickly realised that things like internment were not just wrong, but tactically flawed and actually spurred massive recruitment and support of the paramilitaries.
It is more than just this though, in June 1957 there were reports that an outbreak of flu had hit over a 150,000 people in the Philippines, and was picking off many, many more through out Asia. While this outbreak was not fatal on the 1918 scale, it was serious. If you search the press archives for the period there is little mention of it. There are no hyped up fear stories and mass rushes to purchase anti-flu. Some of this may be put down to national racism at the time, and the concept that “over there” was never going to affect “over here” but not all.
For me, especially growing up during the IRA bombing campaign and the civil disturbances the UK has endured, it seems that the last 10 years have changed the national character into something a lot more (for want of a better word) craven.
If some one sneezes in Indonesia, there is a rush for flu jabs. If an “Islamic looking man” (what on Earth does that even mean!) gets on a plane, the passengers demand he is taken off the flight. We are a frightened nation. A terrified one.
We now have more CCTV cameras on the streets of the UK than pretty much anywhere else in the world. The “average person” now supports the introduction of ID cards and the police are getting wider stop and search powers. Internment already exists for 28 days without trial and is looking like being extended to 90 days. The roads are covered in speed cameras as well as automatic number plate recognition cameras. Schools are looking at biometric tags on the children, even the passport has some “biometric” thing in it (but I have no idea what it is, as they took no biological data from me…). If you get on a plane, you queue for hours, are searched a dozen times and strip almost to your underwear. Every day we hear that WiFi, Phones, Water, etc are deadly and should be avoided (or at least Woo-Cure XYZ be purchased).
Despite all this, do people feel safer? Crime, and the risk of dying at the hands of someone else, is actually quite low in the UK now but still “the public” appears terrified. In my previous post, Jim Reddish’s comment highlights the line of thinking I come across with sickening regularity now when he wrote: “Personally I want to be free of fear of crime and terror.”
Everybody wants that, but instilling more fear, more law and more terror will never, ever achieve it. Have people become too accustomed to the luxury of modern life? Were the Edwardian hardships really so bad that death was not something people were frightened of? I hope not. I love my luxurious life, but I would rather die than sacrifice the freedoms it entails or the civil liberties which have been earned on the backs of my ancestors.
When people finally accept that, in the end, everyone dies and realise that the important thing is how you live your life each day. When people accept that freedoms which previous generations suffered, and died, for should never be thrown away on the remote off-chance that the miserable, frightened people of today can live a little while longer, I might stop ranting. (unlikely though 😀 )
[tags]Culture, Society, Philosophy, Evolution, Fear, Influenza, Disease, Flu, Terror, Terrorism, Civil Liberties, History, UK, British, Empire [/tags]