Our hypocrisy, Bennett said, ranges across every area of life. “We glory in Shakespeare yet close our public libraries,” he said. “Take London; we extol its beauty and its dignity while we are happy to sell it off to the highest bidder. Or builder.” He went on, warming to his theme. “A substantial minority of our children receive a better education than the rest because of the social situation of the parents. Then we wonder why things at the top do not change or society improve.”
Unchallenged by the Radio 4 presenter, unmediated by someone jumping up to give “an opposite view”, and without even as much as a phone-in to make everyone feel a bit better about themselves, Bennett carried on in this vein for about five minutes, his unapologetic, flat, calm voice expertly filleting English society, and laying it out in all its hypocritical horror for all to see. He even brought the police into it, saying that the force was great, as long as you were white and middle class and stayed at home.
He could have gone a bit further. Although Bennett is such a crafty old thing that he probably deliberately omitted a few areas, so that everyone could have the fun of thinking up some examples themselves. It could be a new party game: Hypocritical England. Starter for one, our notion of democracy. We pride ourselves on inventing modern democracy at the Mother of Parliaments, yet ours is not a republic. Our fate is to line up as subjects, fawning before an unelected, undemocratic head of state and her family.
How about the NHS? We brag that our National Health Service is the best example of socialised medicine in the world – yet thanks to the private finance initiative, the bricks and mortar of our hospitals are privately owned, and the beloved NHS merely a paying tenant.
Then there is the arts world. We boast about our wonderful arts institutions and their accessibility, citing free admission to galleries, and reduced ticket prices for live performance as examples of brilliant social inclusion. Really? Anyone visiting, say, the ticketed Rembrandt at the National Gallery or ZooRepublic’s hip-hop Alice at the Royal Opera House this Christmas might have thought that English society was entirely comprised of elderly white people on their own (Rembrandt) or, in the case of the hip-hop, elderly white people toting grandchildren dressed entirely in Boden. Oh, and that nobody outside London is interested in the arts, since everything is in the capital.
Maybe it’s pre-election restlessness, but Bennett’s view has been joined recently by others who are also picking holes in the gleaming PR mantle of Britannia. The Labour MP Chris Bryant brought a torrent down on his head by merely suggesting that perhaps it was time for some people other than public schoolboys to have a go on the arts awards podium. Maybe the comments are becoming a chorus because it is only now, 70 years on, that a post-war top soil of social concern which started to shift during the Thatcher years, has at last been fully blown away, revealing Perfidious Albion for what it has always been, namely, as one commentator recently put it, a place full of “pinstriped bastards reeking of lunch”.
Perhaps public institutions such as the Arts Council (which at least pushes funding towards other genders, races and classes) and Birmingham’s glittering new library are the anomalies residing in a world of hypocrisy and galloping privatisation.
It is sadly delicious, however, that such a damning indictment must be delivered by the chronicler of middle England itself, Alan Bennett, within a lunchtime programme on England’s triumphant bastion of civilisation, BBC Radio 4.