Dear Reader of West England Bylines, my apologies for the self-centred nature of this contribution, but I suspect that some of you may be able to identify with at least parts of this story.
Brexit has generated a vast amount of writing and commentary, most of it dealing with the obvious areas like trade, economics, immigration, sovereignty, security and international agreements – the world out there, so to speak. But millions of us have felt the impact personally. To me, at any rate, the worst thing is the alienation I feel from my country: the theft of my sense of patriotism.
I was very lucky. In my thirties, we lived abroad. I worked for the UN for a while in their environment programme in Kenya and then with a global conservation body based in Switzerland. After coming back to the UK, I worked from time to time with UNESCO, the Council of Europe and (a little) with the EU. One thing that does is to help you see your country from outside and to a degree as others see it. This gives you a more rounded sense of patriotism, as against a rather one-dimensional view that comes from only looking out from one’s country at the rest of the world.
From this experience, I would say that my sense of patriotism before 2016 was a modest pride in being a citizen of a country that was – broadly speaking – confidently outward looking, well-connected, forward-looking, and willing to uphold the highest international values. I could see that in institutions like the BBC World Service – admired and respected everywhere I went, with its jaunty Lillibulero tune heralding the news from London; in the British Council, spreading soft power into the developing world; and in the UK’s highly professional, quite generous and well targeted overseas aid programme.
Behind these institutions and policies lay deeper things that gave Britain some advantage or respect. Our language is the “lingua franca” of the international community. I recall regional meetings of conservation experts in Seoul, Bangkok, Stockholm and Islamabad conducted entirely in English. I noticed how often in UN sessions the participants would set aside their earphones when the speaker used English. I am not sure that exactly added to my sense of patriotism, but it certainly gave me a sense of privilege to know well the language in which much of the world worked and spoke most easily when it came together.
Language is the foundation of culture. Shakespeare was quoted to me not only by international friends and colleagues but I heard it played in theatres in Nairobi and Canada. British theatre playing on Broadway; British orchestras and bands drawing crowds across Europe; British humour from Benny Hill to Monty Python. It was comforting that our cultural ambassadors were often a little self-mocking about our history and pretensions. Most seemed to know that arrogance doesn’t travel well.
I felt proud of Britain’s scientific and educational achievements and standing. Many of the first generation of leaders in the environmental field were British – Peter Scott and David Attenborough, for example. Our universities used to lead in so many areas and were often envied and sought after by young people across Europe and from further afield. Even in areas where we used to lag – cuisine for example – by the end of the twentieth century, Britain was up there with European countries that used to be unrivalled leaders.
But looking back I can see that this view was a partial and misleading one in some important ways. Living in Kenya had brought home to me that Britain’s colonial legacy was mixed at best – and very dark in parts. Friends from India, Africa and the Caribbean told me of their love-hate relationship with our country. I began to reassess my somewhat conventional understanding of Britain’s role in the world and to appreciate the pain that our Empire had brought to many parts of the world.
So, I was pleased to see what I thought were promising signs of the emergence of a new Britain: a genuinely multicultural country enriched by the legacy of Empire and further enriched by the young Europeans who took advantage of freedom of movement to work here. I remember once coming back from a UN meeting in New York and sitting on the Piccadilly line after an overnight flight to London, and thinking – as I looked around the carriage – ‘this is the UN on wheels’. How much more vibrant than the monoculture of large parts of Eastern and Central Europe! If Global Britain means anything it should be a sense of being at ease with our own diversity, and presenting it with confidence to the world – as we did for two magic weeks during the 2012 Olympics.
There were awful setbacks of course, but one could believe that Britain was gradually becoming a fairer and more integrated society where people with privileged backgrounds no longer cruised effortlessly into positions of power and where peoples’ ethnicity was less of a barrier to social and economic advancement.
Finally, I could be proud of the diplomatic stance that Britain usually took (‘usually’ excludes Iraq): a leading power in Europe, a trans-Atlantic bridge, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, playing a leadership role in areas as diverse as the outlawing of landmines and tackling climate change; a proud defender of the International Court of Justice and the European Convention on Human Rights; fully committed to the international rules-based order. And of a course a key player in the EU. I could construct a sense of patriotism based on what Britain had achieved and what it stood for.
Of course, I am not so naive as to believe that all was sweetness and light before June 2016, and my view of our moral worth was doubtless a little exaggerated. But – boy – have we fallen a long way since! Xenophobia has been tolerated, even encouraged by political leaders (think that Breaking Point poster); the EU, the best model there is of international cooperation for peace and prosperity, has been daily caricatured as the enemy by parts of our press; the value of human rights have been questioned; our adherence both to national and international law has been broken. Fear and prejudice have been deliberately stirred up for political purposes, and respect for truth and accountability in public life seems greatly diminished. Values like human rights have been questioned; our Parliamentary democracy has been undermined as leaders grab power to the centre, and looks dangerously unfit for purpose. This country may never have been fully at ease with itself – which countries are? – but today it seems deeply uncertain of what it stands for, riven by rival groups and awash with more intolerance than ever. Not even COVID has brought us together.
I saw Brexit as a Trumpian rejection of reason. It was boosted by fearful, resentful messages. Its advocates wallowed in tasteless, misplaced nostalgia. How can I now feel proud to be British – still less English? If Englishness means angry redtops, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, then I am not sure I belong here anymore. Politically, it’s nearly as alien as Trump’s America or the current regimes in Hungary and Poland, countries where rulers have fostered narrow-minded bigotry and brought out the worst in human nature in order to bolster their positions. This sort of extremism is made all the more possible in Britain by our archaic electoral system that permits tyranny of the minority.
So, this all feels very personal. Never more so than when people like me, who believe it was good to try to be a citizen of the world, were dismissed by Theresa May as “citizens of nowhere”. That sounded like rejection. Indeed, this is not now a country in which I can feel comfortable. I am tired of apologising and explaining to friends from elsewhere in the world that not everyone here is proud of what we have done in turning our backs on Europe; that not everyone is obsessed with the war (which I am old enough to remember); and that not everyone finds the clumsy humour of our Prime Minister amusing. I am fed up with feeling physically sick at seeing the headlines of the Daily Express. In short, I now feel embarrassed rather than proud of my country. And I am angry that my British identity, as I understood it, has been debased, and that my sense of patriotism has been stolen.
I don’t feel patriotic in the sense that our current leaders use the word: as a cover for English exceptionalism; a justification for xenophobia; a synonym for nationalism; a step away from racism. “My country, right or wrong” is the cry of charlatans down the ages. Already we see the effects of the narrow nationalism that created Brexit in the weakening of our position in the world and the diminished respect given to our country. It comes through culturally in the terrible blow we are dealing to our musical industry and plans to undermine the BBC; economically in the betrayal of our fishing communities, farmers, much of the manufacturing sector and many service industries; politically, as we now stand outside the three great power blocs of the 21st century and try to ingratiate ourselves with first Trump and now Biden; or reputationally, as we trash our record in the respect for human rights and the rule of law, and turn from being generous to being stingy to the poorer parts of the world.
I wish I had had an Irish granny – but I don’t. So, I have to face the reality of Brexit.
What Brexit has taught me is that patriotism without values is a dangerous illusion. If we are going to make something of Britain – or what’s left of it after bits fall off – we need to grow up. Act like an adult country. Abandon belief in English exceptionalism. Trust the people by creating a real democracy. Recognise what we are good at. See our European neighbours as partners who share our values. If all this were to happen, then perhaps I could regain my sense of patriotism.