Insouciance — Britain's highest cultural value?

“Takes things too seriously”, “Can’t take a joke”, “Too clever by half”, “Tries too hard” are just four, among dozens, of the clichés Brits routinely deploy to assert status — and to defend their egos from the secret suspicion that other people probably are better informed, harder working, and intellectually sharper.

The object of scorn could be a Brussels bureaucrat or a New Zealand Prime Minister, but is just as likely to be a domestic teacher, engineer, scientist, lawyer or competent manager. And the person uttering it could come from almost any level or corner of society.

There’s nothing we can’t laugh off

The bon môt is kryptonite. There’s nothing in the world so threatening that it can’t be brushed away by a bit of ‘dry British humour’. And there’s no job so difficult or complicated that it persuades our happy-go-lucky Brit to show the slightest sign of effort or calculation.

Tardy bodging. Even when our Brit’s laid-back ‘effortlessness’ allows the whole kit and caboudle to degrade to a shitty mess — that’s just an opportunity to deploy the ‘uniquely’ British talent for pluck and improvisation. Or what ‘humourless teutons’ might call a ‘tardy bodge’.

Rot starts from the head

And, of course, right at the top we now have the very epitomy of insouciant clowning — an inveterate liar whose greatest discernable talent is the ability to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions (Norhern Ireland protocol? How many children?). Heir to a title previously held by David “Oops!” Cameron — the rosy-cheeked boy who acidentally dumped us out of the EU, got caught red-handed attempting to suborn public officials and still trousered a few million to spend at his copious leisure.

Take the money and take the piss. But laughing off weakness and failure doesn’t stop at the top. It reaches down into every nook and cranny of British society. Why should workers take on the painful and difficult responsibility of co-managing their workplaces, when it’s just so much easier to take a wage and take the piss — out of incompetent bosses and their socially awkward technical assistants?

And what of those managers? Well, as UK trade minister Gerald Grimstone recently told the BBC, Britain’s best performing companies are owned and run by Germans, Japanese and Americans.

Technical experts and intermediaries? Of course the more technical, extrovert and loquacious middle ranks may garner a bit of cash and status by lending their talents to the poshocracy. Whoring lawyers and journos have used dextrous wordplay and a taste for fun and mischief to do this for centuries. Although few have held quite the power of today’s corporate lawyers or subs at The Sun and The Daily Mail.

‘Nobody’ reads these papers today, but they still set the news agenda for the BBC, ITN, Sky News and social media. How? Well, it’s at least partly, because your typical Brit just loves “‘avin’ a laaff” and engaging in a few “bants”.

Because sounding like you know what you are talking about, or showing that you care, pretty much disqualifies you from talking about anything — but orphans, pets, or another class of ‘loser’ that might have momentary public sympathy.

Relaxed, doesn’t mean coping

Why does it matter? — isn’t insouciance just a coping strategy? Yep, that’s exactly why it matters. Because it’s ‘coping’ in the way that downing a few doughnuts ‘copes’ with a weight problem and poor self-esteem. It’s not a strategy at all, it’s an avoidance tactic — rooted in the fatalistic belief that there’s nothing to be done about real problems, that are just too big to handle.

Delusions of grandeur. Dean Acheson’s 1962 observation that “Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role’” may be a cliché, but it’s truer now than it’s ever been. Today’s delusions go far beyond those that were current when the humilation of Suez and economic under-performance against West Germany, France (and even puny Italy) were fresh in the memory.

Colonel Bufton-Tufton’s ‘Global Britain’

Trade figures. When was the last time that monthly ‘balance of payments’ figures were a major feature on the early evening news? Sometime in the early 1980s, if I recall. Is that because there’s no longer a problem with our inability to sell foreigners enough stuff to pay for imports? Of course not.

Just too painful to watch. It’s because the trade figures and their long-term trend got so bad, that they were just too painful to watch. So bad, we couldn’t even laugh them off with a self-deprecating joke. Best just ignore them and fritter away the last drops of North Sea oil keeping failure out of mind.

Military prowess. I am genuinely in awe of how much British military personnel manage to fashion from so few resources. Whether that be protecting civilians in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, vaccinating co-nationals or evacuating Afghans. But compare the cost of those useful actions with the billions wasted on pathetic willy-waiving gestures in the Black Sea, the South China Sea, and on Trident. And don’t forget the humiliating withdrawls from Basra, Hellmand and Kabul.

Delusions we can’t afford. The simple fact is that the UK economy and governmment no longer delivers sufficient public resources to sustain a second rank military with aspirations to ‘project power’ globally.

Putting a few ships or battalions in other people’s backyards is not projecting power. It’s just putting a few assets in other people’s backyards. Never mind, there’s got to be a joke in it somewhere.

Soft power? The English language, creative media, science, overseas students, diplomacy, overseas aid? Oops! … looks like we’ve just screwed the lot of them by leaving the EU and hooking our wagon to a super power with a penchant for stepping on its poodle — while spitefully cutting aid to the world’s most desperately needy. Surely, there’s just got to be a joke in that?

Time to face reality

Everyone knows that real world problems are difficult, complex and often contradictory. And every nation is vulnerable to short-term easy answers, scape-goating, knee-jerk reactions, self-delusion, and the tendency to put off difficult change. But I’ve never lived in one where the gap between self-perception and reality was so stark. Or where the tendency to brush off legitimate criticism with a joke and a snear was so commonplace.

An injection of new blood at the top would probably help. Particularly, if it brought in some girls, ‘oiks’ and ‘wogs’ who weren’t too embarrassed to show a bit of effort, shed a bit of sweat, and admit to the occasional failure. It’s more than a pity, then, that social mobility has been declining since 1979 and is now dropping like a stone.

If we can’t change the ruling class … can’t we at least promote some of its more intelligent, honest, and serious members? You know, people who don’t think that helping your mates to raid the public purse is ‘levelling up’. People who don’t believe in the fantasy that markets are always self-regulating and fair. People who don’t think that all failure stems from unsufficient belief or sabotage by traitors and foreigners.

Is that really too much to ask?

Contact Davie Fisher

By form

By Phone

+44 (0)113 234 4611

By email

By snail mail

Flat 3 15 South Parade Leeds LS1 5PQ United Kingdom