Some years ago, while staying in the Loire Valley, we were taken by our French host to visit a memorial to seven crew members of an Avro Lancaster shot down over the Commune of Grez-Neuville in June 1943. It was special to him, since he was responsible for its upkeep, a role in which he took huge pride. I have a photograph of him standing next to it, beaming at the camera.
I’ve forgotten our host’s name. But I’ve not forgotten the admiration he felt for the British, though he had been born after the war. It was an admiration he had inherited from his parents and wanted to display to us, treating us as honoured guests. I felt a distinct flush of patriotic pride.
I’ve been thinking about this recently. How is it that you can feel proud of the sacrifices made long before you were alive by people you didn’t know? Integral to it, surely, is that sense of how we’re seen by the rest of the world. If you have no interest in what foreigners think, it’s not pride you’re feeling, it’s arrogance. But when they tell you they hold your country in high regard, even if it has nothing to do with you personally, that’s different.
All of us of a certain age have grown up in the afterglow of our ancestors’ wartime heroism, even if the myth of “Britain alone” has distorted the picture and been adopted by chancers for their own grubby ends. But there’s so much, over the years, that has made me proud to feel British. Our music and arts, our science and academia, our film and television. The BBC, for all its faults, now excelling in Ukraine through the bravery and brilliance of its reporters and camera crew and the information service it’s providing to Ukrainians, in keeping with its best traditions. My former employer the Department for International Development, a real force for good and genuine example of the UK as a world leader before it was absorbed into the Foreign Office in one of Boris Johnson’s countless acts of vandalism.
Then there was our democracy and governance. My career as a civil servant took me from intelligence to foreign policy to international development – all fields that involved looking out at the world rather than in on ourselves. If there was a common thread that ran through them, it was a feeling that others respected us for the way we did things. I realise now that much of my sense of Britishness came from my belief in what this country, for all its faults, stood for.
But if you can feel proud of the good things, you need to own the flip side too. Today, Boris Johnson and his acolytes are the face of Britain – an ugly face that will linger in memories long after that man is gone. Johnson’s Britain is a country basking in its sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, where the Prime Minister, unrestrained by his party, can lie relentlessly, break the law, insult our neighbours and allow corruption to spread like a virus.
Johnson’s Britain is a country which, two weeks into the war in Ukraine, had let in a mere fifty refugees. Which turned away desperate people at Calais. Which, even when pressured by public opinion to do more, felt the need to foist enough bureaucracy on refugees to drive them, in some cases, to look for alternative places of sanctuary or even go home.
Johnson’s Britain is a country which, despite its legacy of empire and more recent presence, has failed to do right by Afghan refugees; which casually betrayed the Windrush generation; which treated EU nationals as bargaining chips, leaving millions of them in limbo, and deeply unsettled in their own homes.
Johnson’s Britain is a country where immigrants and refugees are viewed as commodities and numbers; where some people’s humanity has been so eroded under the onslaught of years of propaganda that lifeboat crews can come under attack for attempting to save lives; and where the Government has now found new levels of moral depravity by washing its hands of its responsibility for desperate people and sending them to Rwanda.
Of course, there’s another Britain still there bursting to show itself: one of compassion and of love for our fellow people, as has been clear from the public’s response to Ukraine. But I’m not sure that’s what the outside world sees. It matters how you treat others. It gets noticed. And once you’ve gained a reputation, you’ll struggle to shed it.
When I was younger, I suffered from a spell of depression. For those few months it was as if I were stuck behind a pane of thick, murky glass, able to perceive all the things I loved and valued on the other side but unable to reach out and embrace them. These days my relationship with Britain feels similar. Though it saddens me beyond words to say it, it’s some years now since I could say I felt proud to be British. To those fake patriots who’d ask me why I hate my country so much, I’d answer that I don’t: I just hate what they’ve done to it.
What has become of us, sitting on our island and snarling at the world? Seeing greatness in the mirror where others see ugliness. Indulging self-declared Putin admirer Nigel Farage, Britain First poster boy Jacob Rees-Mogg, and their army of clones as, day after day, they lob one poisoned carcass after another into the well.
Sometimes the emotions are intense. Anger. Loss. Despair. Embarrassment. But most of all, shame. Deep, deep shame. I wonder what our host in Grez-Neuville must be thinking these days about Britain.