Great Britain has always been a country in love with the amateur and only during the last two-thirds of the twentieth century has that in practice, if not altogether in theory, diminished. Sport, for instance, whether in field sports, boxing or equestrian, was an activity for amateurs, usually gentlemanly ones, until spectator interest attracted the attention of commercial interests and big money produced sporting heroes able to earn good money through their talent, thereby attracting regional or sectarian fan-support , which made their sport widely popular, commercially viable and above all: professional.The performing arts have undergone a similar experience, bu have remained (and this applies to the arts as well, although not to the same extent) confined to a minority, usually those with a better educational background. That is why they are now labelled, particularly by populist politicians, as ‘elitist’, a term that is not applied to those who excel at or follow sport, although it is just as expensive, often more so, to attend.
Underneath this lies the greatest difference between the English-speaking countries and the best European ones, a certain attitude to intellect, to the best form of ambition and , in general, to everything that can be called intellectual, even good craftsmanship. The French, in particular, have quite deliberately created elitist school (without being afraid of a word which is deliberately avoided here), while to be recognised as being brighter than most others is something to be derided in Britain, avoided and considered in some way wrong. We do of course have elitist schools but they are only open to the upper classes and the rich. In France all that is needed is ambition and a willingness to work hard enough to pass exams which are intended to identity talent and intelligence. Those who run France, whether it is the departments of the state, industry, the educational system or other necessary institutions, are those who have been trained to do so, whereas here, and in many other countries, not only in the English-speaking world, an amateurism prevails, fuelled sometimes by greed and sometime by pure accident because of the great number voids. This leads to massive incompetence in both private and public institutions. There is generally a prevailing ignorance where those who get into a position of authority do not really understand what they are doing and have little curiosity about how to do things better. Democracy, in a country such as this with its low and falling levels of education and no recognition of excellence, let alone respect for it, simply does not work. Increasingly people vote out of class or secular loyalty, habit, instinct, or even at random, without knowing the issues involved or what they are really voting for.
That is why we have such a low level of elected candidates to rule us. Recent revelations by the press of M.P.’s shortcomings and greed, as well as their failure to foresee the financial crisis that is now upon us, has exposed their incompetence and lack of clarity as well as their inability to understand what public service is about. In France and in many other countries where those in authority have been trained to know what they are doing, both state and industry work as efficiently as possible and are usually able to deal with unexpected crisis. This also applied to the financial world. The collapse of the economy, both here and in America, is the result, not only of no education in ethics and the histor and culture that lies behind it, but of a cavalier amateurism in the approach to everything that takes advantage of good accidental circumstances, such as shortages leading to a boom, that expects it to go on for ever, with no thought or even ability to realise what caused it and where it is likely to go. Enormous enterprises tempt investors, where the people at the top have no idea of what is going on in the middle of a group of companies that is often being empties out by easily concealed (for a while) fraud, theft or loss through incompetence. The odd warning voice that sees what is really happening is ignored because those in authority, governmental or industry, do not want to believe it.
It is high time that we begin to create a real elite, trained to know things, run things and to take responsibility, recognising and admitting mistakes and willing to stay with the consequences. Such people have to know past history and be familiar with a general culture based on creativity, not hearsay and fashion. It is the lack of such people offering an alternative to the present situation that makes it possible for the incompetents of today to never apologise or back down, because they know there is no one to replace them.
John Calder 11/5/09