From the Observer today:
We love celebrity culture but loathe the unfairness of fame, seeing it as an excuse to ridicule the Britneys of our world. Julian Baggini explores our peculiar love-hate relationship with success
“If you want an insight into British attitudes to success, just think of Richard Branson. He’s rich, successful, philanthropic and a record-breaking explorer to boot. None the less, he’s also seen as a vain self-publicist who’s better at marketing himself than running things. No wonder he has featured both in lists of the 100 Greatest Britons and the 100 Worst Britons.
Branson perfectly illustrates a paradox in British attitudes to success. On the one hand, we specialise in sneering at it. Only a quintessentially British songwriter like Morrissey could have written a song called ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,’ with such poisonous lines as ‘If we can destroy them, you bet your life we will,’ and ‘If we can hurt them, well, we may as well’. Building people up only to knock them down again is a national pastime.
But on the other hand, we do success rather well. The achievements of the United Kingdom are way out of proportion with its size. Only the much larger USA has produced more Nobel Laureates than the UK. Great Britain lies sixth in the all-time Olympic medal table, when it is currently only the 22nd most populous nation in the world. British literature, television and pop music are among the most highly regarded and enjoyed around the globe. In business, ours is the fifth biggest economy in the world.
What explains this combination of negative attitudes to success and high achievement? One clue comes from sport. Consider the case of the recently retired Tim Henman. Henman is the most successful British tennis player of the open era, who at his peak only had three men in the world ranked above him. Yet his image is of a plucky loser, an underdog we love to root for but don’t really expect to win.
We took Henman’s success for granted as we assume we belong at the top, and anything else just doesn’t impress us. The same bizarre logic ensures that only a World Cup-winning football team will ever satisfy the nation. Yet England does not belong to the elite club of only five nations who have won the world cup outside their own country. We believe we belong at the top of the tree, even though the evidence is firmly against us. So much for the famous British empiricism.
The British assumption of superiority is internationally renowned, and reiterated in our national songs. ‘Rule Britannia’ declares that we are sovereign over the oceans, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ declares our bounds shall be set wider and wider and that God made us mighty and is going to make us mightier yet. Humble we are not.
Britain on top
Underlying all this is an assumption about the natural order of things, which, put plainly, has Britain on top and everyone else underneath. But this same sense of the natural order extends to within our borders too, and is reflected in one of the most famous hymns to have come out of the Church of England. The third verse of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ tells us ‘The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them, high or lowly / And order’d their estate.’ It is a perfect encapsulation of the class system’s perceived naturalness and legitimacy.
The verse is rarely sung these days because we like to think we live in more meritocratic times. But class awareness persists. There is still a distinction made between people who were born into the upper echelons of society and those who clawed their way up. The latter are almost always treated with a certain degree of condescension. We are never allowed to forget that the likes of the Beckhams or Alan Sugar are not true blue-bloods but are, in all senses of the word, too vulgar for their late-found wealth. We may have become a more economically mobile society, but you are branded with your class identifiers at birth and you never lose them.
In contrast the US embraces, at least on the surface, a more dynamic view. The American Dream is that anyone can succeed, regardless of where you come from. Although the dream is too often just that, anyone who has spent any time in America will know there is something in it.
For instance, 10 years ago Jeremy Stangroom and I started the Philosophers’ Magazine. At conferences in the UK, many academics would wander past our table, looking suspiciously at this unfamiliar upstart, judged non bona fide until proven otherwise. Their body language was at times quite extraordinary: I can picture some of them flicking through the display copies while keeping as physically far from them as possible. It wasn’t just academics. I remember one person seeing our first issue and asking sceptically whether there would be a second. Success is the impostor here: what we expect is failure and disappointment.
In the US it was completely different. People came to us enthusiastic about our new venture. They wished us luck, bought copies and told us what a good idea it was. The door was not just open to opportunity there, you were positively beckoned in. Back in Britain, the door was not exactly locked, but if you dared to enter a new room, it was up to you to make sure you fitted in.
But then we return to the paradox: Britain has produced two successful, independent philosophy magazines; the much larger US hasn’t produced any. In America people may will you to succeed, but we do very well without such encouragement over here. Perhaps there is no paradox, perhaps it is simply the case that scepticism and suspicion are better friends to the ambitious than blind faith. Indeed, it is not entirely good that younger generations are beginning to adopt the ‘you can be anything you want to be’ mantra. Too many people are being told that if they want something enough, they will get it, as though desire is some kind of supernatural force that moulds the world to your fancy.
This is the kind of pernicious nonsense behind the runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book which explains the ‘law of attraction’, a widely held new-age view that your thoughts determine your experience. As is so often the case, the irony of an apparently spiritual world view teaching such rampantly narcissistic egoism is usually lost.
The danger of such positive thinking gone nuclear is that it blinds people to hard realities. We already see thousands of people auditioning to TV talent shows convinced that they will be pop stars if they believe enough, even though they clearly can’t hold a note. Yet we seem to accept now that it is wrong to question anyone’s dream. We don’t only have to believe in ourselves, we have to believe in everyone else too.
A little more American-style inculcation of the possibilities the world has to offer would be no bad thing, especially for children who miss out on private education’s greatest benefit: a sense that the world is your oyster. But perhaps it is better to meet new world optimism halfway, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, and keep it tempered with some sober realism.
The British way does have some other advantages over more ostentatiously pro-success cultures. For instance, there has always been room in British culture for freelancers, mavericks and outsiders. In many European countries, such as Italy, intellectual life is firmly the monopoly of the professoriate. We may lament the way in which Oxbridge produces so many of the ruling elite, but France’s Grandes Ecoles have an even greater stranglehold on the routes to power. There is a respect for difference and diversity here which again sits oddly with the general conservatism of class and tradition.
Our peculiar mix of convention and innovation is explained by the fact that Britain is the land of evolution, not revolution. We may be conservative, but unlike many traditional societies, we are not rigid in our social rules and practices. The Victorians, for example, invented the middle classes: people who were neither born to money nor destined to forever be employees, but entrepreneurs who provided the missing link between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate.
The comparison with the new middle classes in many of the emerging economies is revealing. People sometimes celebrate the bullish entrepreneurs of India and the far east and think we could learn something from their can-do attitude. Perhaps we can, but we need to remember that we are an old economy and the frontier spirit which sees every opportunity as a blank slate is simply not appropriate here.
British success is rooted in a collective experience of a rich, fruitful past. We are cautious and sceptical, but that means that when we do something new, it is more likely to be built on firm foundations, not just the utopian desire for a better future.
We may be quiet and even disparaging about success when it comes, but in our understated way, we’re well equipped to achieve it.”
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His most recent book is Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta)