For many years I railed against crusty politicians who lauded the ‘great British tradition of muddling through’. To my ears it sounded like an excuse for complacency, a lack of clear vision, and a totally unfathomable faith that things would, somehow or other, ‘all be fine’.
So why do I now doubt my earlier convictions?
Possibly the revision was prompted in part by Prof. Appiah’s current series of BBC Reith lectures. Possibly it was stirred by the Short/Sharp Brisk Brexit camp and it cannot be a coincidence that the shadows of this Halloween have been made spookier by flickering lights from orange trumpkins. But perhaps more than that, here at home Judith & I managed the awkward, almost embarrassing, enthusiasm of family members insisting that we should celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – an achievement, from our perspective, of no great endeavour except for an ability to survive by ‘muddling through’.
It was during Prof. Appiah’s second episode broadcast from Glasgow that I pondered again the great value of approximation. Back in 2014 I’d been moved to write to friends in Northern Ireland to remind them of their diverse roots. Those words came flooding back when, in the course of the lecture, the word ‘ambiguity’ made an appearance as a problem. I had always regarded ambiguity as one of the great jewels of the English language – the scope for flexible approximation, for multiple meanings and, as in an unwritten constitution, a lack of precision born of rich layers of diverse evolution.
From two decades ago I recalled the job advertisement for a senior Civil Service post requiring candidates to demonstrate ‘a proven ability to cope with ambiguity’. Back then I would have shouted ‘fudge’! Now we are exposed to sharply drawn, absolutist and increasingly intolerant, blustering bullies who shout in tabloid post-truth headlines and defy any hint of ‘soft’ deviation. And it is only now that one realises that such extreme forthrightness is not just wrong but so very thoroughly un-British.
We Brits are and do ‘what it says on the tin’. Ish, sort of, defies the absolute. It is embedded in our gloriously crossbred British DNA. My letter to Norn Iron in 2014 was prompted by reports of intolerance of immigrants. As we are now resolved to survive the next two brexiting years we would all do well to understand and ‘stand up for’ our brand values and rejoice in our great history of muddling through.
Every clear plan needs a fair amount of flexibility. We must, of necesssity, cope with outcomes but that doesn’t mean we should hold any great respect for the illusions and misunderstandings encountered along the way.