In the midst of despair at the divisiveness and hostility between many Britons, I offer some thoughts from our Georgian past. This is one of my favourite quotes, so apologies to anyone who has read it before. It comes from Highways & Byways in Somerset by Edward Hutton, on the importance of the city of Bath, then the country’s premier spa:
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, as at the end of the first, the great need of England was a new reconciliation of classes, of society. The people of the countryside, of the provinces generally, the fox-hunting squirearchy, the country gentleman, his wife and daughters, found in Bath the means of social intercourse with the new aristocracy, the habitue of St. James’ Street, the bureaucracy and the governing class, just as previously the British landowner and provincial had found there the means for the same intercourse with the Roman officialdom; in fact the existence of the governing class in both periods depended upon the establishment of such an intercourse. It is curious, and surely a proof of the continuity of our civilisation, that, though separated by much more than a millennium, in both periods the same means were found and in the same place. Looking at the matter in this way, and it is thus it must be regarded, Beau Nash appears as a saviour of society; one may well believe that all such have been adventurers of his kidney…
Gradually in Bath, in the continual social intercourse of the “seasons”, these people so strange and antagonistic, whose reconciliation was so necessary for the existence of the state, became known to one another; the fox-hunting squire was taught manners, and from the mere barbarian of those days became the courteous and delightful gentleman that Goldsmith shows us so perfectly in She Stoops to Conquer. Of course all this was largely the work of women; it was, however, primarily the work of Nash, without whose enterprise woman could not have found her opportunity.
Hutton was describing England emerging from the dark ages that followed Henry VIII’s Reformation, when local religious practices were outlawed, pilgrimages and processions were banned, then Catholicism returned, then Protestants, then the Civil War, so for about two centuries ordinary English people were buffeted by huge social, financial and religious change. No wonder people retreated to their little worlds and rejected those of others.
I won’t go into the whys and whatevers of the current problems of the UK, but what seems central is the need for a common space, a common culture in which citizens of all walks of life can participate in, and the discussion and participation gives them a starting point to form social bonds. This was a major part of England’s recovery from chaos and social animosity, and it is still the ideal model for fixing what is going wrong now.
An important part of Bath’s success was promenading. People saw each other at their front doors, they knew their neighbours. They spoke to them. How many of us can or will do that? Long distance commuting is killing communities. So is a lack of social spaces – parks, in particular. People seem to be happiest when they live near parks – it is not just about the fresh air and exercise, but about the open social connections possible there. London seems to be our most socially balanced city.It is also proud of some wonderful open spaces. A coincidence?
Other social spaces include art galleries, where people of all sorts can mingle and discuss what is on display. The BBC was also a major source of social unity, but with the rise of other media, and budget cuts this has declined. But they still have bakeoff and strictly… for now.
History is also important – the real stuff, the imagining of past lives, of the struggles of real people rather than the demonisation of the dead. Science is also famous for transcending national and cultural borders. Again, no coincidence that Britain is so good at these. They were essential for making us what we are, a magnet for people of all walks of life for centuries. At the heart of what still makes Britain great, our major industries are inextricably linked with the capacity to think originally, and those qualities are central to education and support for art, science and innovation.
Running through much of my research is the passionate belief that people are as good as their lives permit. We all want to get on with our friends, family and neighbours. If this fails, we need to look to the whys, not play any misinformed blame game. We were not there, and much of history was not written down, so we are often forced to make guesses. This is not to deny that there were bad people in the past. Of course there were. But there were also a hell of a lot of wise, brave, many of whom changed not just Britain’s history but that of the wider world. We – not just their white descendants – should be celebrating them, rather than blaming them for all our modern problems.
Even if you never become an artist, you need art in your life. Even in the midst of a storm there are rainbows. A love of art will help you see them.