Golden Thread of Gobbledegook
Both Gordon Brown and David Blunkett have been talking about patriotism and Britishness. The latter had an article on the subject in the Guardian last week. It was mostly unmitigated poppycock, balderdash and bollocks. To give you a flavour he talked of "a golden thread twining through our history of common endeavour in villages, towns and cities - of men and women united as neighbours and citizens by needs and common purposes, by a sense of duty and of fair play."
When politicians, or anyone else, start spouting metaphysical nonsense about golden threads you should be on your guard. And to make a cheap personal point, fair play didn't characterise either Blunkett's term as Home Secretary or his conduct of his personal life.
Blunkett spoke approvingly of Brown's assertion that our maritime tradition and the fact that we are an island have made us remarkably outward-looking and open. What??!! What fucking island are these people living on? What planet are they living on? Are they unfamiliar with the term 'insular'? Have they not noticed the majority British attitude towards Europe and towards foreigners?
On radio last week Blunkett added to his definition of Britishness the assertion that we are 'sports-mad'. This again is nonsense. There are millions of people like me with minimal or zero interest in sport. Anyone who doubts this should look at the viewing figures for sport on television. Why did ITV have to axe their early evening football programme after just a few weeks? More people visit theatres each year than visit football matches.
As many people have pointed out, if you start claiming things like tolerance and fair play as distinctively British qualities then the logical implication is that other nationalities lack them and that leads you straight down the road of an indisputably British characteristic of smug superiority. Next stop, racism.
With an election coming up it will become apparent that if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then it's the first refuge of a politician. I am almost totally devoid of patriotism, although that doesn't mean I'm not a scoundrel on other grounds. But I used to walk past the Edith Cavell monument at Trafalgar Square every day and I prefer the far more challenging and noble aspiration inscribed there: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone."
I regard myself as a human being, full stop. That I am 'British' is just an accident of birth, not something I take pride in. There are things I like about living here. For all its faults, The Guardian. For all its even greater faults, the BBC. I love the English countryside, particularly my own corner of it. But if I lived in Switzerland, I'd love the mountains so it's simply a case of liking the familiar. And I've repeatedly found over the years that things I thought were quintessentially 'English' or 'British' were no such thing.
Take one small example. The TV comedy 'Keeping Up Appearances' seems uniquely British in its depiction of class and snobbery. Yet it has been sold to countries around the world. I believe it is huge in Botswana. It was so popular in India, with Hyacinth Bouquet such a recognisable character, that they've now made their own Indian version of the programme. This, I admit, astonished me. But the conclusion to draw is that if other countries share our faults and an ability to laugh at them, then they almost certainly share our positive qualities too.
However, if I may for once adopt a more 'typically' Middle English voice, there are many countries that do not manifest the casual rudeness that characterises everyday life in this country across all classes and all occupations. Not that I want shop assistants to say 'Have a nice day'. (It was the American S.J. Perelman who once snapped at a New York taxi driver "I'll have whatever kind of day I want") but it would be nice if they could bring themselves to reply to a simple 'Good morning'.
But maybe they've wriggled free of Blunkett's twining Golden Thread that unites us as neighbours and citizens in our common endeavour.