Philip Pullman’s keynote – The virtues of the state

PHILIP PULLMAN: In my ten minutes I want to say something about this nation as it might be, and about the virtues that sustain a living and waking 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 the nation we live in, but I shan’t dwell on them now. Hard as it is, I’m going to stick with virtue.

So: what are the virtues that a nation needs in order 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 judgement even in the midst of confusion and 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 wrong. 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 that’s the end of the matter. Find something less destructive to invest in.” And 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. It would not take up a machine-gun to defend itself against a wasp.

Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiosity. Wakefulness of mind might be another term for it. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and of its history, and of every 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, how to understand, and how to love their work – we need to be taught how to love – believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and 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’s the value of wakefulness.

Now I didn’t imagine, when I was asked to speak at this convention, that I would find myself considering the subject of virtue, but actually it’s inescapable. And the next virtue I want to praise is modesty. Modesty, which is not at all the same as humility, not at all the same as prudishness, not at all the same as 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 to remember whether or not it was a republic, because its royal family would be small, and its members would be allowed to spend most of 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. Why does this matter? Twenty-one 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 that they are defying existential threats to Western civilization 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 decided to lead 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 the 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 give me hope that the spirit of virtue, common, public, civic virtue is still alive where people are free to act without interference.

One is an example of folk traffic calming. People living in a residential road in Oxford, home to a lot of families and children, a road which normally functions as a rat-run for cars, recently decided to take matters into their own hands and demonstrate that the street is a place for everyone, not just for people in large heavy mobile steel objects. They set up a living-room right in the road, with a sofa, a carpet, a coffee table, and held a tea-party. They parked their own cars in a chevron formation all the way along the road, and put planters containing bushes and small trees there too, not blocking it, just calming the traffic down. They set up a walk-in petrol addiction clinic. The result was that cars could easily get through, but drivers couldn’t see clear from one end of the road to the other and didn’t feel it was just for driving along at 30 miles an hour. Everyone shared the whole space. It was a triumph: wit and inventiveness in the service of a decent human standard of life.

The second thing I saw was a foundry on an industrial estate in Gloucestershire. They make castings for sculptors in every kind of metal and on every scale 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 of them 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 have seen the economic threat that hangs over it, too.

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 the Laureate at the moment 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 the teachers and the parents 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 with delight. Enchantment. Joy. The librarians there were practically weeping with relief and pleasure at seeing so many children now 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.

Now what have these things to do with freedom and the threats to freedom that we’ve been hearing about today? What has the virtue of delight to do with the 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 surly 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, of the enchantment of art and the wonder of science is a weapon in the arsenal of moral and civic and, yes, political virtue. I say weapon, and I say arsenal, 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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Responses to “Philip Pullman’s keynote – The virtues of the state”

  1. John Levett says:

    I was interested to hear both Philip Pullman and Brian Eno make reference to environmental issues in their presentations today. Unfortunately, my stream was interrupted but I believe there also a well-received request from an audience member to link the issue of climate change to the debate.

    I was slightly alarmed by this development and would like to suggest that it is a mistake to assume that all of us who are concerned about the growth of the state are also persuaded by the alleged climate consensus. Liberty and freedom of expression are fundamental to us all regardless of where we stand on other issues. Given the general acquiescence – whether positive or apathetic – to the measures that we find so alarming, it is clear that we will need to work hard for support: if we appear to be a Trojan Horse for the environment, we exacerbate the risk of fracturing our support.

    I propose that the environment should be left to a more appropriate forum to better enable us to focus on the issue that brought us all together.

  2. Fionnuala Sullivan says:

    I agree with John Levett that we should avoid fracturing the support for Modern Liberty.

  3. Sian John says:

    The Convention on Modern Liberty should defend those who wish to support the debate on climate change – on both sides of it – wherever they are restricted or censored in any way, or wherever they are put under surveillance or otherwise harassed.
    But climate change in itself is not a liberty issue.
    Using free speech and access to media resources to deal with it, is.

  4. Julius says:

    I think someone had better correct the vocabulary, syntax & punctuation errors in this speech, before the errors and dryness become the faulty record of what was a subtle and inspiring speech.

  5. Prof D A Smith says:

    This Pullman paper seems to have been First Class (!) except in linking the phantom of man-made climate change to the important principle of civil liberty.

    Independent scientists, those who are not employed to support self-seeking politicians or grubby industries seeking state subsidies, now agree that world carbon dioxide level now at 380 parts per million is quite close to the lowest level needed to sustain life and well below concentrations experienced in past millenia. The level varies cyclically and has little or nothing to do with global warming which, incidentally, may already have peaked in 1998, though it is too early to be sure.

    Denying us new cleaner coal-fired power stations will ensure power outages from about 2012 until about 2018 which is the earliest date by which new nuclear facilities will be on stream. A pity that this otherwise sensible contribution was tarnished with a slice of Al Gore-ism.

  6. Jax says:

    I unfortunately missed this speech on the stream, and at the moment, the transcript is not particularly legible.

    In case anyone has contact with Philip Pullman however, could they ask whether he knows what happened with his article in the Times on Friday? It disappeared from the online edition and has been scrubbed from the google cache, although it has popped up all over the web since. Did he want it removing? Seems unlikely as it’s an incredible piece of writing. Title is Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms.

  7. Michael Barns says:

    In response to Julius, I agree with his comments, I was at the convention and the speech was inspiring and the final paragraph almost reduced me to tears. It would be very sad if this power was lost in interpretation.Thank you for a stimulating and thought provoking day.


  8. Trevor R. Booker says:

    Everyone accessing this page should be aware that Philip Pullman’s piece, ‘Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms’ in the Times Online (OOA 25th Feb.) was pulled within hours of publication and also disappeared from Google Cache…
    I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  9. Paul Parkinson says:

    Just to let people know – the article written by Philip for The Times on Friday has disappeared from their website.

    I’ve republished it here ( – please forward / republish. This article cannot die.

    @parkyondon #coml

  10. Anne Rooney says:

    Philip did not ask the Times to pull the article and was dismayed that it had disappeared.

  11. Mike D Smith says:

    I believe the times piece is back up.

    Very interesting when Eno mentioned losing power at Anti-War HQs just before protests on a couple of occasions. Hopefully some technologies: Laptop batteries, 3G internet, iPhones etc make the state a little less able to manipulate infrastructure—even if they can eavesdrop so much more effectively with their own technology.

  12. It is so English to think of liberty today without considering the question of nihilism. Suddenly we find a rather melancholic bemoaning of the lack of genuine virtue in contemporary society. However, the likes of Pullman, Grayling and company just refuse to acknowledge the negativities that any culture of virtue requires. There cannot be any sense of honour without a corresponding sense of shame, nor compassion without pride. And while much (too much has been said and whined about what right-wing commercialism did to the West in the past 20-odd years, almost nothing has ever been said about how left-wing policing of traditional virtue has made it suspect in its totality. I suggest that instead of spewing forth liberal clichés about Thatcherism and eavesdropping, the likes of Pullman and grayling read writers like Michel Foucault and Odo Marquard. then they will see that the problems that they discuss are far more multi-faceted than a simple ‘us agaist authority.

  13. Rob says:

    Louise Mabille:

    “I suggest … the likes of Pullman and grayling read writers like Michel Foucault and Odo Marquard. then they will see that the problems that they discuss are far more multi-faceted than a simple ‘us agaist authority.”

    And if you’ve read Pullman, you’ll know he doesn’t think in a simple ‘us against authority’ either. His novels are highly amibiguous with regards to authority and individual morality.

    If negativities are required for a culture of virtue, then we have them in abundance. I’ve lost track of the number of times ministers have made reference to ‘these difficult times’ over the last months. And Jack Straw was still speaking of ‘the climate in a post-9/11′ in the Guardian just a few days ago.

    Moods are running low. I have no doubt that Pullman’s main purpose, in the short time he had, was to deliver a fresh dosage of inspiration. And right now, people need it.

  14. UPDATE: The first version of this speech we had up was transcribed on the day from spoken word and contained a number of errors. The author has now very kindly supplied the text of the original which went up today (Sunday 8th March).

  15. FreeThinker says:

    This speech rings very true. Our liberties are at threat. They try to say surveillance protects us but when I had something stolen from me in the supermarket no one was charged, a form was filled out and that was it. No more was heard. There is CCTV everywhere in the store but yet it appears to be useless when something is stolen from you as the consumer. Now people from CCTV cameras shout at people to pick up litter in the street while in other places people are beaten up in front of CCTV and then the evidence dismissed as circumstantial.

    Making a `paranoid’ society just increases violence, competitiveness, selfishness and aggression because when people feel backed into a corner they are more likely to lash out. It seems more and more of our freedom’s are disappearing and what is following is a society of disillusioned, disenfranchised individuals rebelling by rejecting the authority that they feel cares nothing for them.

    This campaign reminds me of part of the late comedian Bill Hicks’ `Its just a ride’ speech.

    “It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings, and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourselves off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what you can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.”

    He was right. Its just a choice. Love not fear. But its very difficult to make when all you see around you is danger.

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