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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