We are a better people

Philip Pullman
5 March 2009

This is the keynote address delivered by Philip Pullman at the Convention on Modern Liberty, London, 28 February 2009.

I want to say something about this nation as it might be, and about the virtues that sustain a working nation. I'm not going to spend much time on the vices that undermine it, although, as every storyteller knows, it's easier and more fun to talk about vice than about virtue. There are plenty of things to say about the vices of this nation but I shan't dwell on them now. Hard as it is, I will stick with virtue.

So: what are the virtues that a nation needs to be a state fit for human beings to live in? First of all, it needs courage. Courage is a foundational virtue: it's what we need in order to act kindly even when we're afraid, in order to exercise good judgment even in the midst of confusion at panic, in order to deal with long-term necessity even when short-term expediency would be easier. A courageous nation would not be afraid of its own newspapers; it would continue to do what was right even when loud voices were urging it to do what was wrong.Philip Pullman, novelist and advocate of the literary imagination, was born in Norwich in 1946, and educated in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia, before settling in North Wales, and reading English in Exeter College, Oxford. His most well-known work is the trilogy His Dark Materials, beginning with Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA) in 1995, continuing with The Subtle Knife in 1997, and concluding with The Amber Spyglass in 2000. He has been awarded the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award - the first time it was given to a children's book.

It would stand up to economic interests when others were more important, and yes there are interests that are more important than short-term economic benefits. Such a nation, for example, would rule out new coal fired power stations, full stop. It would have the guts to say to the financial interests that wanted to put them up; "No, you can't do it and there is the end of the matter. Find something less destructive to invest in." When it came to the threat of external danger, a courageous nation would take a clear look at the danger and take realistic steps to avert it; not take up a machine gun to defend itself against a wasp.

Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiousity: wakefulness of mind, one might say. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and its history, and every separate thread that makes up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to understand and love. We have to be taught how to love, how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and the memory of the nation.

A nation where this virtue was strong, would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That is the value of wakefulness. I never imagined, when I agreed to speak today, that I would find myself talking about virtue, but thinking about what this nation might have been, and might still be, makes it impossible to avoid.

The next virtue I will praise is perhaps even more unlikely at the moment. It's modesty. Modesty, which is not at all the same as humility, not at all the same as prudishness or self-abasement. Modesty in a nation consists, among other things, of fitting the form to the meaning, and not mistaking style for substance. A modest kingdom, for instance, would have to think for a moment or two whether or not it was a republic, because its royal family would be small, and its members would be allowed to spend most their time in useful and interesting careers as well as being royal, and because their love affairs would remain their own business; and people would always be glad to see them cycling past.

Now, why does this matter? Well, 21 years ago, Charter 88 began to show us that every part of our complex and bewildering unwritten constitution was tangled up with every other part. In order to improve this, we had to alter that. In order to let information flow properly here, we had to remove an obstruction way off over there. These things are all connected. So acquiring modesty, a proper sense of our size and position in the world, would be a big step towards reducing the self-importance of politicians who imagine they are defying existential threats to Western civilisation when they are merely throwing their weight around behind the bicycle sheds like a playground bully.

There are many more virtues I could consider, but there's one I can't leave out, and that is honour. Whatever made members of our parliament think it was honourable to pocket large fees in exchange for pushing legislation? Whatever persuaded a minister of the crown to think it was honourable to conceal the truth about how this nation's cabinet led us to war? Whatever led a government to think it was honourable to spy on its own people? These things are a continuum. The small offenders get caught; the big ones smirk as they talk about realism and efficiency and extraordinary times needing extraordinary measures.

Just imagine for a moment a nation with the courage, with the modesty, with a simple wakeful clarity of mind that are so near at hand, so easy to find, if only we knew. Imagine a government that trusted the people who elected it. Imagine agencies of the state that regarded the people's privacy as something it was the state's duty to guard, rather like the value of their money and the historic individuality of their town centres and their freedom to speak and write as they like. Imagine a nation that cherished these things as a kind of natural blessing, something obviously good that needed no justification, something like sunshine or kindness or clean water. Or honour.

Before I finish, I want to say something briefly about how virtue manifests itself in daily life, local life. I saw three things, three little things recently in this nation of ours that gave me hope that the spirit of virtue, common, public, civic virtue is still alive where people are free to act without interference.

One of the examples I call ‘folk traffic calming'. People living in a residential road in the city I live in - living on a road that is home to a lot of families and children, a road that normally functions as a rat-run for cars - recently decided to take matters into their own hands to demonstrate that the street is for everyone, not just for people in large, mobile, heavy steel objects. They set up a living room in the road, with a sofa, a carpet, a coffee table and held a tea party. They put plant planters along the road containing bushes and small trees, not blocking it, just calming the traffic down. They set up a very funny walk-in petrol addiction clinic. The result was that cars could get through but drivers couldn't see easily and didn't think it was just for driving along at 30 miles an hour. Everyone shared the whole space. It was a triumph: inventiveness and wit in the service of a decent human standard of life.

The second thing I saw was a foundry of an industrial estate in Gloucestershire. They make castings for sculptures from the minute to the monumental. The company was founded 20 years ago, and starting from nothing: they now have over 80 craftspeople working flat out, many trained by the company itself. When I visited them a couple of weeks ago every corner was full of busy, vital, creative activity. That is another example of what I mean by virtue: the goodness of productive work. The nation is a better place because of it. John Ruskin would have recognised that; and he would've seen the economic threat that hangs over it, too.

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Discover the history behind this story... >> 21st Century Britain: Just How Free Are We? David Marquand questions the free and democratic legacy that British history has bequeathed to the citizens of today>> The Companion to British History Paul Lay, History Today editor, expounds the virtues of a grounding in historical knowledge for a nation

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The third thing I saw was a television programme. We have a poet laureate in this country; we also have a children's laureate and at the moment it is Michael Rosen, a great man, I think. The programme was about a project he undertook with a school in South Wales where books had been undervalued for one reason or another. He showed the children and their parents and the teachers the profound value of reading and all it can do to deepen and enrich our life, and he did so not by following curriculum guidelines and aiming at targets and putting the children through tests, but by beginning and ending with delight. Enchantment. Joy. The librarians there were practically weeping with the relief and pleasure at seeing so many children coming in to search the shelves and sit and read and talk about the books they're enjoying. But the libraries are still under threat of course.

Now what have these things to do with freedom and the threats to freedom we have been hearing about today? What has the virtue of delight to do with virtue of liberty? Everything. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion cannot sustain delight for very long; joy does not flourish in the garden of anxiety. The society these laws seem to be designed to bring about is one of institutionalised paranoia, of furtive hatred and low-level panic. Every scrap of delight and gladness we can find is a blow against that fear; every instance of civility and kindness we come across is a clean wind dispersing a foul vapour. Every example we cherish of imaginative play, of the energy of creation and of the enchantment of art and the wonder of science is a weapon in the arsenal and I say weapon, advisedly: we have a fight on our hands. "I will not cease from mental fight", said William Blake, and this is the fight he meant. The fight to defend, to restore, and to sustain the virtue which is not now but could so easily be, the natural behaviour of the state.

We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.

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