Radio 4 had an interview with a guy (I’m being vague – I didn’t hear who or what he was, but it was definitely a man) who had been investigating the various beliefs of the British public. It is generally assumed that Brits are liberals, willing to defend the individual’s right to free speech and other liberties, but ready to provide a hand (through state intervention) to help those who are struggling. The research highlighted that this is really more of an ideal (no great surprise there), but one contingent on an element of communitarianism.
The thesis was that we’re willing to grant people rights, but they have to show that they deserve them by participating in the community. That participation can be pretty minimal. The interviewee pointed to the history of Chinese people in the UK; they have a tendency to keep to themselves in a number of Chinatowns, but that’s seen by the rest of the community as more of a preference than a harmful insularity, and more importantly they’re good neighbours. As trivial as that sounds, it is distinct from some Islamic communities, which (regardless of what the truth actually is) are seen to hold themselves separate and in some senses ‘better’ than the community at large, and also aren’t seen to ‘play the game’ as part of society.
This certainly struck a chord with me. I’m not naturally a Conservative voter, but I can sympathize with their frustration that so many people don’t play their part (regardless of Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society). It’s difficult to image the transformation in any society if, for example, all criminals decided to go straight, or slackers decided to work harder, or everyone decided to volunteer just an hour a month to a cause. It’s an illusory hope, based on the idea that an individuals could improve their lot just by applying themselves, but a seductive one nonetheless.