News from Nowhere: In Defence of Britishness
Britain at its best is confident enough to concede its countless faults and failings, the errors and injustices of its history and its contemporary conditions, rehearsed openly across its media, parliaments and educational curricula.
The political polling and market research organisation YouGov is currently offering UK users an online survey to diagnose their political alignments and allegiances. The opening question asks whether the subject believes that ‘young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’.
The question appears designed to expose the inner reactionary in the respondent, the secret voter for the UK Independence Party or the devotee of GB News: in other words, that so-called ‘gammon’ demographic of disillusioned old Tories who might be imagined to consider that those traditional British values consist of a love of cricket, roast beef and the union flag, a visit every few Sundays to a Church - of England church, and a good-natured dislike of the French. This is the Britain which the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major depicted in a 1993 speech as a ‘country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers’ – the post-imperial myth of a long-faded power.
But there is another country, another Britain, one whose time-honoured values continue to be recognised by its youth, a nation of many cultures, heritages and traditions, a society which believes in equality of opportunity and which acknowledges its responsibilities to support and empower its weakest members, and which also admits to its frequent failures to fulfil such promises.
Indeed, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the most part appreciates that, as Winston Churchill supposed, its democracy is ‘the worst form of government – except for all the others’. It knows it’s not perfect, but it strives to be better. Britain at its best is confident enough to concede its countless faults and failings, the errors and injustices of its history and its contemporary conditions, rehearsed openly across its media, parliaments and educational curricula.
It might seem terribly unfashionable – even somewhat conservative or nationalistic – to write in praise of the values of one’s own country, especially when that country’s the UK. Yet this is not to defend the patrician Britain of a lost empire, moral self-aggrandizement and xenophobic prejudice, but to laud the land of a welfare state and a National Health Service free at the point of need which doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of wealth, colour, creed or class; a multicultural nation which accepts it; doesn’t always manage to live up to its own high standards but which is proud to provide a haven for the voices which condemn it the most; a realm which fosters peaceful protest and mardy complaint – a culture of tolerance, balance, moderation and compromise, qualities which are perhaps neither glamorous nor even particularly inspiring but which offer a safe space in an increasingly dangerous world.
It is also perhaps the last great bastion of irony and the home of the BBC’s extraordinary output of news and natural history, comedy and current affairs, and world-class drama; a small island which celebrates the diversities of humanity and human relationships and whose Paralympians this summer deservedly took a gratifying second place in the Tokyo medals table.
This is a practically secular state which, at its finest, embraces difference and promotes freedoms of worship and political expression. It was after all in Britain that Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Charles de Gaulle sought sanctuary. It has been to Britain that for centuries countless refugees have fled persecution, albeit eliciting varying degrees of welcome. One is less likely for example to cheer the current Home Secretary’s virtually weaponization of border patrols in a bid to turn back asylum-seekers or the random eruptions of Islamophobia in the tabloid press; yet there are still things here for which we might be thankful, relative at least to the patterns of oppression elsewhere.
On the weekend that marked the twentieth anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, the Taliban announced a set of restrictions on the educational opportunities accessible to women in Afghanistan, and Emma Raducanu won the US Open tennis tournament. While it is a truth often acknowledged that the English tend to see tennis champion Andy Murray as British when he’s winning and as Scottish when he’s not, the United Kingdom as a whole took Ms. Raducanu to its heart, all the way through the course of the championships in New York, her progress was so eagerly covered by the nation’s media. The British-Canadian-Chinese-Romanian teenager’s extraordinary success and popularity stand as a testament to the triumph of multiculturalism, and may perhaps offer a modest glimmer of hope in reversing an unfortunate upsurge of anti-immigration feeling in Westminster politics provoked once more by the increased flow during the summer of 2021 of asylum seekers across the English Channel.
To praise Britain’s virtues is not of course to excuse or ignore the aggressions, complacency, hubris, hypocrisies and missionary zeal resulting from the successes, such as they are, of the UK’s iteration of liberal democracy. The country’s role in the Middle East, for example, has, of course, been a matter of particular shame. The British author, actor and comedian Stephen Fry once suggested that if western democracies wish to win other parts of the world around to their ways of thinking then, rather than attempting to bomb them into submission, it might be a better idea to offer them some of the advantages and opportunities of western civilisation. There are clear precedents for this. The Cold War was won not simply through the nuclear arms race or through proxy conflicts in developing nations but by the spread of popular cultures – for example by the broadcast of American television soap operas in Ceaușescu’s Romania – and the best way to support the liberation of the people of Afghanistan two decades ago might have been through the provision of access to economic, educational, cultural and medical benefits rather than through military occupation. China has for years now in a similar way quietly propagated its global influence through economic investment and support and the related growth of soft cultural power.
Britain’s greatest assets are neither its military forces nor its nostalgia for its bygone imperial influence but its national broadcasting, health, education and welfare services, its vibrant literature and culture, its liberal and democratic credentials, and its freedom to challenge quite openly its capacity to meet its own progressive ideals. The fact that one can be so publicly, directly and severely critical of one’s own government is only, after all, possible because of a system of political expression and political representation which affords space for such diatribes – indeed which so frequently sees administrations publishing reports critical of their own practices and policies. That intrinsic and fundamental right, so often taken for granted, may be the thing for which we should be most grateful of all.
And it is that right which will allow me, having offered up this moment of quiet balance, to continue, as is my wont, to lambast my beloved country in my future writings.