Figures from public life share their viewsby Prospect / May 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Mario Vargas Llosa, novelist
Best: Its profoundly democratic spirit, visible in every aspect of social life. I’ve never encountered another society which practices the virtues of tolerance, co-existence within diversity, and respect towards others, to the same extent. Institutions have a greater influence than in other countries, and there exists a spirit of solidarity which emerges, above all, in testing times.
Worst: Its resistance to accepting that in our age borders are disappearing and the idea of nationhood is going to lose substance. Britain lags behind other countries in accepting that integration, first with Europe, and then with the rest of the world, is absolutely essential for maintaining a high quality of life and making the most of modernity.
Lady Hale, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
Best: The good old British sense of humour, not appearing to take anything too seriously (while actually doing so), broad-mindedness, and fair play—women would never have got anywhere without the support of men who were prepared to put their sense of fairness above self-interest. The Church of England, at its best the embodiment of those virtues. The weather, always giving us something to talk about.
Worst: The great British class system, still remarkably resilient, perhaps because it is also so flexible. The Church of England, at its worst. And the weather, of course.
Brian Eno, musician
Best: Cultural creativity, ingenuity and verve.
Worst: Awe at privilege and celebrity, and disdain towards those without either.
Martha Lane Fox, entrepreneur
Best: The diversity, calibre and integrity of talented people: community leaders, charity bosses, small business owners, well-known faces in music, fashion or the arts.
Worst: Our inability to celebrate our talent and our failure to unlock even more of it through more equality of opportunity.
Swaran Singh, professor of psychiatry
Best: Every important public matter is subject to wide consultation. All voices, whether weak or powerful, are patiently considered. It is democracy in action. Everyone has a say.
Worst: On every important matter, everyone insists on having a say. All views, from those based on hard evidence to those driven by ideological purity or single-issue fixation, are considered. It is democracy in paralysis. Everyone feels dissatisfied with the outcome.
Margaret Drabble, novelist
Best: BBC talk radio, drama, short stories, fiction.
Worst: Our ludicrous, sycophantic, poisonous class system. Those who think it’s gone away deceive themselves. It’s still endemic.
David Bailey, photographer
Grayson Perry, artist
Best: The thread of humour that runs through nearly every exchange and conversation. As the anthropologist Kate Fox observed it is not the quality of our humour that is notable but the quantity. We use humour to protect us from that ultimate foreign sin, earnestness.
Worst: How it has given in to the forces of the blessed market. No one seems to be able to persuade the populace that Furniture Village is not a community.
Simon Callow, actor
Best: Complexity and diversity; a profound sense of history which is challenged at every turn; comedy breaking through each disaster.
Worst: A perverse rejoicement in failure; a depressingly perennial ambivalence towards the arts; a befuddled political system which is close to standstill.
David Kynaston, historian
Best: The overwhelming lesson of the last century is that nothing matters more than tolerance, and fortunately we still live in a largely tolerant society.
Worst: I have come to loathe—indeed, feel completely intolerant about—the continued existence of private education, which seems to me fundamentally at odds with any progressive vision of the future.
Shamit Saggar, political theorist
Best: London and a few other places are a microcosm of the world.
Worst: Despite living here for more than four decades, very few people can say or remember a name as straightforward as mine. Britain’s sense of its manners is exaggerated, which can lead to patronising unfairness.
Joanne Segars, chief executive, National Association of Pension Funds
Best: Our ability to absorb the best of other cultures. No other European country would have chicken tikka masala as its national dish. I love getting on the bus and hearing as many different languages as there are seats.
Worst: We’re too unequal—bad for economic stability as well as social cohesion. Intergenerational inequality will be a serious problem unless people in work today start to save more for their old ages.
Iain Dale, political commentator
Best and worst: Its people. The British are the most innovative, creative, entrepreneurial in the world, but can be the most coarse, brutal and rude. It was ever thus. But anyone facing a battle would want the British on their side. Britain has taken over from France as the world’s cultural and gastronomic capital. It is still true that to be born here is to have won first prize in the lottery of life.
John Carey, critic
Best: The countryside.
Worst: The threat of its destruction.
Peter Marks, head of the Co-operative Group
Best: A tremendous sense of community, whether it’s the incredible response to national charity appeals or the spontaneous reaction to the death of Claire Squires, the marathon runner.
Worst: The weather.
Trevor Phillips, chairman, the Equality and Human Rights Commission
Best: Our collective optimism. The certainty that everything will be better again once we’ve all had a nice cup of tea.
Worst: Our collective amnesia—the certainty that everything used to be better.
Shami Chakrabarti, director, Liberty
Best: The world’s oldest unbroken democracy, where people of different backgrounds and views have rubbed along together in relative peace and achieved progress for so long.
Worst: This great good fortune sometimes makes us complacent about our fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. People around the world envy our human rights and democratic institutions. We should treasure them more.
Joseph O’Connor, writer
Best: The Beatles. A tradition of tolerance. The NHS. Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Philip Larkin. The Brontës. The men and women who defeated fascism. The beautiful variety with which English is spoken.
Worst: The notion that all foreigners belong in a sitcom.
George Monbiot, journalist
Best: Remarkably little violence.
Worst: A continued appetite for exporting violence to other parts of the world.
Sonya Dyer, artist
Best: Our social contract, the NHS above all.
Worst: We don’t defend it strongly enough.
Alain de Botton, writer
Best: The spirit of tolerant humorous scepticism: the very opposite of fanaticism.
Worst: A pervasive cynicism and envy, reflected in the media.
Bhikhu Parekh, political theorist
Best: A variety of cultures, traditions and points of view which nurtures critical self-analysis and guards against conformity.
Worst: Deep social and economic inequality, its corrupting influence in all spheres of life, and the total failure to deal with it.
Mark Miodownik, scientist and engineer
Best: Free museums, cups of tea, and the central role of the joke in all public activities.
Worst: The British do not love the very thing that makes them human: engineering.
Geoff Dyer, writer
Best: The beer, the Premiership, Wimbledon.
Worst: A culture of inefficiency and the acceptance of apology as a substitute for improvement; the assault on the English language overheard in the streets of London every day, yobs, the Premiership.
John Humphrys, journalist
Best: Tolerance. We don’t go in for revolutions or (much) rioting.
Worst: Tolerance. We put up with too much crap—mostly of the bureaucratic kind.
Timothy Garton Ash, historian
Best: Our sense of humour: gentle but always present, like the rain—what I miss most whenever I am abroad.
Worst: Airport trolleys. You would think that this scepter’d isle, once the workshop of the world, now proud to be a hotbed of innovation, could manage to make a trolley on which the wheels point in the same direction.
Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy
Best: A relaxed, fluid and pluralist view of what it is to be British; a culture of judging British institutions by a higher standard than those elsewhere.
Worst: A degraded sense of public service so those who are most self-regarding and on the make are objects of adulation and imitation.
Naomi Alderman, novelist
Best: Our capital city is the most ethnically diverse of any city in the world and has the lowest level of ethnic violence for its size.
Worst: The Tory party. Our cabinet has more old Etonians than non-white people.
Matthew Oakeshott, politician
Best: We are a fair-minded, tolerant, unselfish and compassionate society. Money talks, but not too loud.
Worst: It’s changing. Especially at the top of business and politics.
Harriet Lamb, executive director, Fairtrade Foundation
Best: The public have taken Fairtrade to heart—really inspiring.
Worst: The loss of so many independent stores, small businesses and small farmers.
Richard Dowden, Royal African Society
Best: Children speaking 26 mother tongues in school, an experiment in common humanity unprecedented since the Tower of Babel and a platform for leadership in global affairs.
Worst: The failure to enjoy and take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
Norman Lebrecht, novelist
Best: The universal belief that a cup of tea can make any hurt better.
Worst: The cold reality—it can’t.