The problems of Brexit and the impending US Presidential elections seem to be tearing the UK and USA apart. As is so often the case, these problems are nothing new – England suffered 2 centuries of discord following the Reformation, when church power collapsed, plunging the country into a time of ignorance, mismanagement and the famous witch trials. Bishops and a king were executed, so respect for rulers also collapsed.
But England found an unlikely solution – the much denigrated practice of good manners, as promoted by the gambler and master of ceremonies at the Bath assembly rooms, Beau Nash. This is a piece I often quote, but I think it is more important now than ever before.
The USA has long been held together by the Great American Dream, but that was based on widespread economic prosperity, which has failed many hard working people, and no one seems to be coming up with an alternative. Likewise, in the UK, diversity of all forms has been promoted, but this is causing many people to retreat into social or cultural groups, with little contact or understanding between them. Concepts of history are being dumbed down, with few people trying to explain why bad things happened, and that they were not all done by bad people. Humans are far more complex than that.
But the important point is that the UK and USA seem to have lost a common culture, a common language and space in which to meet and exchange ideas, to listen to those different to ourselves. This is from Highways and Byways in Somerset by Edward Hutton. It may seem irrelevant to today, but just bear with it.
At the beginning of the 18th century, as at the end of the 1st, 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’s 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 intercourse. It is curious, and surely a proof of the continuity of our civilisaton, that, though separated by much more than a millennium, in both periods the same means were fond 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; …
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.
This may seem irrelevant to our modern woes,but without a unified country, Britain could never have founded an empire, the industrial revolution would have been very different. Even now in post-industrial decline, Britain still hits well above its weight in education, diplomacy and the arts.
It is all about communication, of having a safe, neutral space for different groups to exchange ideas.
That neutral space seems to be missing and nobody seems to realise how important it is. As Nash understood, it is the social skills traditionally associated with women that were – and are – so important in building bridges.
But in the current angry, shouting environment, such skills cannot make any progress. There are times when words seem to mean completely different things to people on either side of the divide. Everyone needs to step back, to calm down, and find a common space in which to make our world a place where all citizens are welcome and where we can all move forward.