There is a sea-change happening in politics that is leaving many people bewildered. Why are people from the fringe like Trump, Sanders or even Corbyn, suddenly so attractive to people? The old centrist politics with Blairs, Browns, Clintons and Camerons no longer seems to cut the mustard. Is this just a moment of public boredom with the establishment politics or is it a reflection of something deeper regarding human culture? In this short essay I am going to explore the idea that we are currently responding to the culturally neutralising affect of treating all people, from every nation, as consumers. We do not like the bland high street. We do not like the impoverished language of our public life. We are longing for something richer, more in tune with our heritage and culture.
I want to begin with a shocking piece of research. Walter Bodmer and colleagues at Oxford concluded a ground breaking study of the genetics of the UK last year. They looked at the genes of a set of rural people whose grandparents lived within 80 miles of each other. This selected out some of the most ‘settled’ people in the country. And they found something fascinating. These people showed clear genetic differences corresponding to the geographical ranges of the most ancient tribes of this land. Cornish people were still different from Devon people. The Welsh were clearly of Celtic type and those from North Wales different again. West Yorkshire people still showed a distinct genetic profile corresponding to the ancient tribe of ‘Elmet’ people in that area. The Southern Scots were similar, as expected, with Northern Ireland, while the people of the Orkneys were a race apart from anything on the mainland. They could even discern the genetic component of the so-called English part of Pembrokeshire. Most of the bulk of Central and Eastern England was of Saxon origin. These distinctions demonstrate scientifically that the cultural distinctions between different parts of the UK are written in our genes. Each of these areas at one time had their own language or dialect, their own established customs and laws and their own ways of thinking. And to some extent these differences were an expression of their genes.
There are many ideas that can be drawn from a study like this and not all of them are helpful. I am fascinated that the roots of our ancient cultures can still be traced to the areas in which the people originally settled. I am also interested in the possibility that some aspects of these cultures remain in our subconscious and contribute to our sense of feeling at home in the world. One key aspect of a culture in which we feel at home would be our ability to understand and trust the behaviour of those around us. Cultural breakdown is most fundamentally an issue of trust.
Now it is clear from the work of Bodmer’s team that the UK is multicultural at its heart. The recent migration of people is not special. We are pretty much all immigrants. It also obvious that this country has a long history of cultural assimilation. At first there were many bloody battles concerning the settlement of these lands. A shared faith helped to make peace, for example, as the various groups of Saxon invaders were converted under Augustine of Canterbury. This peace was formative in the very development of Englishness. The world of minsters as centres of learning, agriculture and trade eventually gave way to towns and cities as the new cultural melting pot, where contact with diverse cultures from around the world brought new commodities and an enriched social experience. Such was the process of settlement in a nutshell.
So it is that throughout the history of this land we have managed to hold an implicit tension between a comforting sense of our cultural roots and the challenge and enrichment that comes from contact with other cultures. Yet it is also clear that these tensions can, under certain circumstances, lead to social unrest.
It should be no surprise that we are currently experiencing tensions around immigration. For years now we have acted as if local cultures did not exist. We have tried to treat human beings the same the world over by focusing on a new and degrading description of humanity as ‘consumers’. People have resisted that, of course, and the cultural meltdown that it promotes. Those in rural areas have demonstrated suspicion about ‘incomers’ who adversely affect their ‘way of life’, while immigrants moving into cities have tended to move into particular areas where they can protect and express at least some of their originating culture.
It is also true that the great promises of consumerism have failed us. The expected ‘trickle down’ of wealth from rich to poor has not occurred. Some areas, like London and the South East, are extraordinarily well off in comparison to other places and polarised societies are deeply unsettling. Coupled with this, the lifestyle of the consumer is now widely recognised as meaningless with resultant negative effects on our mental health. These are the sort of conditions in which a cultural backlash might be expected to manifest itself, with a concomitant distrust of the establishment. And this is precisely what our current crop of politicians seems to fail to understand.
The Brexiteers are a case in point. They are currently caught on the horns of a dilemma. Many of them are arguing for ‘free trade’ with Europe and the rest of the world. This is to play into the consumerist world view with all its problems. But, at the same time, they want to recognise the need to curb immigration, because the public want this. How can these two things be reconciled? The EU tells us that they can’t. You can have one or the other. Let’s watch to see how this tension plays out. One can only hope that our politicians become more able to express why people are forcing the issue about immigration. In the terms of this essay it has two prime causes:
- The dominant and degrading paradigm of consumerism does not address our deepest needs and values.
- We value culture, history and tradition as part of a complex system of trust that makes up our society.
In response to being treated as consumers, our people are now unwilling to accommodate the change and challenge of cultural integration. We are seeking comfort through recourse to an originating culture, even if this is romanticised. As a result there is a tendency to identify and oppose recent incomers. Dangerous romanticists among us talk of ‘making Britain great again’ in an appeal to a mythical cultural solidarity and this resonates with our pervasive cultural unease. The process is dark and dangerous.
Many of us sense this danger, but we may not understand that it can be positively remedied only by recognising the positive role that culture plays in our lives, in our sense of identity and our sense of home. We should celebrate our histories in all their complexity, honour our ancestors, convey their wisdom and seek to live well. We will never be reduced to some economic formula. We are citizens, all of us, and must be treated with respect.
 Ewen Callaway Nature News 18 March 2015 UK mapped out by genetic ancestry http://www.nature.com/news/uk-mapped-out-by-genetic-ancestry-1.17136
 Peter Ackroyd in the History of England Vol 1 Foundations comments on the world of Augustine saying, ‘England, as we understand it today was created by the Christian Church’.
 Wilkinson R and Pickett K The Spirit Level 2009