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Friday, June 20, 2014

DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR - Toryisms, old and new

By Swapan Dasgupta

Visiting India both as a celebrity and a state guest in the high noon of Empire, the British architect and designer of New Delhi Sir Edwin Lutyens made a curious observation that was only partially by way of a complaint. India, he wrote (and I am quoting from memory), tends to make the Englishman into a Tory, of a pre-modern kind. 

The sight of a few thousand Britons lording over many millions and being greeted with a mix of flattery and exaggerated deference was enough to generate self-delusions of grandeur. Lutyens may not have succumbed to it totally but his architecture certainly reflected the majesty of superiority. Even today, staring at the erstwhile Viceregal Palace from its imposing forecourt, it is difficult to shake off the impression that India remains a grand mission. Presumably, the guests from the SAARC region that attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony last moth, must have returned with an appropriate sense of awe and veneration. 

There was a time when both the architecture and the received wisdom generated a similar reaction about the Mother Country. Veterans of the long sea voyage from Bombay to Southampton will needless tell you of the overwhelming experience of the first sight of the chalky white cliffs of Dover, a state of mind produced by both an exalted 'idea' of Empire and the uber-patriotic films of Sir Alexander Korda. A subsequent generation (including mine) will tell you of the shock and occasional disgust on touching down at Heathrow and observing the sad faces of the elderly ladies who cleaned the toilets--all ladies from our 'Poon-jab'. 

Indians of a particular class and upbringing had crafted a mental image of the British Isles that emerged as an extension of a people we had learnt to both hate and admire at the same time. Yes, colonialism was undeniably offensive to the individual soul and to national self-respect. But this political distaste for the pith helmeted sahib and his patronising ways was nevertheless never at odds with the reverence for the sights, sounds and imagined customs of the Mother Country. For a class of Indians--particularly those with roots in the three Presidencies--Britain was always an imagined country constructed out of a curious blend of boxwallah experience, club life, the public school and George Mikes' 'How to be an alien'. This is what bound the West Indian CLR James and Sir V.S. Naipaul to a Nirad Chaudhury, Jawaharlal Nehru and 'Tiger' Pataudi. 

If India fuelled the Tory instincts of Lutyens, Britain (or England as many of still insist on calling it, quite impervious to the sensitivities of Scots) brought to the surface the Hindu partiality for a settled order. We couldn't entirely identify with all the quirkiness and eccentricities of Britons but we respected the fact that they were alive to their history, their institutions and their own inimitable sets of values. Enoch Powell, a man who should never have abandoned his true calling as a classics scholar, used to describe the relationship of India and Britain as a "shared hallucination". I doubt if anyone can better that description.  

Maybe it is the departure from a pattern which we hoped would be as enduring as the squat black cabs and the milky, disgustingly sweet and tasteless British cup of tea that triggers disorientation. Next summer, it will be 40 years since I first stepped into Britain and lugged a heavy suitcase from Hatton Cross tube station to a modest student accommodation in Paddington. To say that London has changed from Harold Wilson to David Cameron would be to state the obvious. In those days, London always looked a bit under the weather what with an inner-city that appeared to be boarded-up and slummy. Today, London is smarter, more gentrified, better dressed and a darn sight more prosperous. The plumbing is infinitely better and some establishments even have air-conditioning for summers that seems to be getting longer and hotter. And more important, London is getting more and more international in character. There was always an over-representation of the New Commonwealth in the 1970s but today's London seems like a slice of the United Nations. 

To the globaliser and the Davos set this is great news. From French tax exiles, Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, dodgy Pakistanis and sundry others who have invested handsomely for their permanent residence status, London remains at the centre of global finance, just as it was in the days of Empire. Between membership of the European Union, free markets, low inflation and lower interest rates and the all-conquering English language, Britain, it would seem, has successfully reinvented itself for the 21st century. To be tired of London, we can still continue to say, is to be tired of life. 

Yet, underneath the surface all is not well. Actually, things appear to be going horribly wrong. It is not merely that there are as many black veiled women in the square mile between Edgware Road and Oxford Street as there are in Dubai. It is not even that the mobile phone conversations in the red double-deck buses are rarely conducted in a tongue that we would recognise as English. Cosmopolitanism involves not being judgmental of cultural and national differences. 

What seems to be happening in the United Kingdom is the exact opposite of what Americans celebrate as their 'melting pot'. In blunt terms, Britain is experiencing the novelty of social incoherence marching to the tune of economic purposefulness. In a sense this could be called the ultimate triumph of globalisation, when people don't become similar but try to superimpose variety on top of economic oneness. Alternatively, should we be concerned at the after-effects of allowing free market and economic freedom to be the sole determinant of public policy? 

In the end it depends on who you are talking to. For those who have created small boroughs of Birmingham that are forever Islamic republics and for those who believe that the British state is a fattened milch cow of welfare handouts, this liberalism is great involving lots of benefits and no national obligations, not even the modest one of learning English. But, as a government-funded British Social Attitudes survey found this month, there is deep public anxiety at the damage caused to British culture by unrestricted immigration of one form or another since the mid-1950s. Worse, the study suggested a growing disquiet between public concerns and the refusal of a 'liberal' political culture to recognise these as legitimate. In a massive indictment of the huge state investment in the multicultural project, the survey indicated that at least 51 per cent felt that being British also involved having British ancestry. 

The implications of this survey are very serious and not merely confined to one set of islands in Europe. It points to the pitfalls of forgetting that what we are can't always be manufactured or moulded but also shaped by history. More important, the survey tells us what some of us knew already: that ripples on the surface caused by the flutter of the deracinated often leave the depths unmoved. If Britain is showing the first signs of a cultural counter-revolution, it should be welcomed as long overdue. 

The Telegraph, June 20, 2014


RS said...

Delightful article. Y. I’m not for multi-culturalism of this sort - where you find hijabed women on Oxford street and at Selfridges, and many Muslims despite partaking of generous welfare payouts, constantly abuse England.


The spurious point the liberals make is that, if people are integrated into society, that’s enough and assimilation of culture [ of the immigrant country is not required]. To my mind that is a flawed argument, because immigrants do not sufficiently appreciate, that Britain has reached this robust liberty and fairness [ due to which immigrants have equal rights and opportunities to flourish, which is not reciprocated in Islamic nations like UAE etc] , because of its history, its Protestant character and sometimes because of the mavericks it had. The Magna Carta wasn’t delivered from heaven, the inclusion of opposition in govt wasn’t decreed by god, the separation of judiciary, executive and legislature did not come by divine revelation. All this happened because the English people were fanatically determined to uphold the spirit of liberty and fight for it.

Islam is simply , converse to this idea of questioning authority, rather Islam means submission to Allah. No Islamic country is robustly or intrinsically democratic. So it’s doubly exasperating, when people say liberty is a universal value, frankly it’s not. India prior to independence in its 2000 yr history was not democratic; we were sadly always uber deferential to authority. Rabid sycophancy & obsequiousness to power, never can craft a robust democratic spirit. Today India is a democracy, but I cannot say with utter confidence that Indians are wholly democratic in temperament. Just witness the fawning of the dynasty, or of every tinpot official of the govt. Just to contrast, we were flying out of Heathrow, and to claim VAT refund, one needs to show the merchandise to the customs official. I have never met such a polite and helpful govt official in India, this British chap, waived any inspection and did the formalities in 25 seconds flat !

In her book 'Statecraft', Margaret Thatcher, makes an interesting observation in the postscript which is on Runnymede and the Magna Carta. In this she states, that irreverence to authority and a critical mass of individuals who understand liberty make democracy work. She further amplified it with "characters…. so obstinate to right wrongs…. They are rugged, angular individualists…they are the people referred to as 'difficult customer', 'one of a kind' or 'a dammed nuisance' a 'character' ".These are the reasons why according to her, democracy survives in the UK and later in the other English speaking worlds.

Frankly the sort of cultural arguments Samuel Huntingdon makes are so politically incorrect, that they hardly gain currency. But its my hypothesis, when history will be written 100 yrs hence, broadly Protestant nations will be at the top, followed by Catholic / Buddhist / Hindu / Greek orthodox nations and Islamic at the bottom in the league tables.

Anonymous said...

I think it is wrong to rank hindus by RS down below Christians in democracy. We should remember that India had democracy 2000 years ago before Muslims and british enslaved india. India requires time to catchup after 2000 years of slavery and maintaining basic democracy in last 67 years is no mean achievement.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this article because I used to be an Anglophile. I lived in London and saw it all. And I grew out of it completely.

Looking at the British through the lens of the 19th century is a bad case of becoming a permanent prisoner of history. In the same way that Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union or Xi's China is not Mao's China etc.

India needs to escape its colonial trap. We have lived in it for far too long. There is still a class of people whose entire view of the world and of life is trapped in a colonial time warp. We need to get out of that. And no, America is not the alternative either.

There is much that is not admirable about Russia or China but we can learn from both countries. And India has to become a power in its own right and not be a prisoner of American and Western intellectual fads. The West can, dare I say, screw itself and we shouldn't give a damn.

Anonymous said...

delightful article...there seems to be sad regret in the minds of even 'liberal' Englishmen today that their grand multiculture project has also served to dilute their own culture...the case is the same across Europe..

Praful Shankar

sayantani gupta said...

Well put, and refreshingly honest.
The gap between the Britain we of a certain vintage in India have been imagining; and the country that actually is, is stark..often disturbing in its multi-cultural anomie.
Thanks once again for this piece.

sayantani gupta said...

Brilliantly put.
Thanks for a very honest and analytical article, that many of my generation in India will identify with.