Dissent in the name of progress

9th March 2007 at 00:00

I sometimes find myself musing on the early Christian church in these islands. Scion of a well-to-do Romano-British family, young Patricius is abducted from home by Irish pirates. After a few years as a slave in Ireland, he escapes but then goes back, to become their patron Saint Patrick.

The extraordinary bit is that early British Christianity found so strong a rootstock among the shifting tribes and alliances of Ireland. Together they became a dynamic monasticism. Its energy and independence was as different as it could be from the authoritarian Roman church, modelled on the hierarchy of the defunct Roman Empire.

Eventually this creative upstart was overwhelmed by the Roman adults in an argument about the date of Easter.

But how that moment has echoed! Even in Patrick's time, the Germanised south and east of England were regarded as religious backsliders, holding fast to pagan or secular pragmatism. It took Saint Augustine to put even transitory manners on the south. Dissent burst out again later in the triumph of Parliament, the City of London and Protestantism, in Cromwell's moment of glory. Perhaps it does so still in the British suspicion of any religious orthodoxy and of political localism which might resurrect a cock-a-snook vitality.

What makes all this interesting is its power to aid reflection on the essential spirit of this place in a globalised world in which more than 100 million people are on the move. It is important because success in globalised economies lies in difference, not in following the herd.

German automotive companies are top dogs not because they set out to build a Ford or General Motors "world car", but because they build what goes down well in Munich, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg. It just so happens that we like it too. If you look at the educational profile of Italians, not only is it different from that in every other industrialised country, but it joyously pokes Lord Leitch's prescription for future success in the eye. How can they get by with such a small proportion of graduates? "Dunno," says the urchin in all of us, "but gimme some o' that Italian clobber an' food an'


International competition is about promoting lifestyles that others want.

We used to adore all things American and if recent political events have made our love grow cold, then woe betide the American economy. We envy much about Japan - its order and respect for excellence - to the extent that I have watched young Saudi apprentices learn to be Japanese workers by lining up each morning on a grid on a parade ground.

I have heard a German admiringly call the British "genius bodgers". He meant "creative, anarchic, original, contentious, inventive and amiably odd". If we want to develop a successful skills strategy to hold our place in the world's financial big league, those are the things that will have to be its foundation.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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