Britain, bigger than its nationalism

April 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’m not sure how this post will turn out, but I’m angry enough that it needs writing. As will come as no surprise to you, I’m in favour of staying in the EU. Our academic collaborations across Europe help give us a cutting edge in world science, the EU provides valuable protections to working rights and the environment, it’s a useful check and balance on Westminster, and more widely we can face challenges such as migration or terrorism better with international solutions to international problems. I’m aware of course that many people will disagree with me – I find most of the arguments for Brexit to be poorly thought through, though I respect that some people have an emotional attachment to the (rarely historically practised) idea of the sovereign nation-state, or fears stoked by the populist anti-immigrant press, and those things are hard to shake off. That’s all part of the rough and tumble of a political campaign.

But there is a line, and the line is being crossed a few times too many. So to say it loud and clear – I am absolutely, thoroughly, totally sick of the Brexit campaign implying or outright claiming that I don’t believe in Britain.

I don’t believe in Britain? Are you kidding?

The trouble is that people like Michael Gove and his ilk have a view of Britain that is, in a word, small. It’s a Britain summed up with parading the monarchy or the military around, waving union jacks which were probably made in China, and congratulating ourselves on how we exported democracy as if we created the Empire as a genial favour to the rest of the world. It’s a Britain that’s a nation state competitor in a world of nation state competitors, aiming as everyone must do to be #1 in the international dick-waving contest. In his world, you believe in Britain if and only if you believe in winning the theorised international race at all costs.

But there’s a problem; Britain isn’t actually just a combined dick-waving team. Britain is us, and the islands we live on. And once you appreciate that, Gove’s Britain starts to shrink. Michael – whilst I doubt you’ll read this – what you don’t seem to understand is that Britain is so, so much bigger, so, so much older… and so, so much more than your flag-waving fantasies.

I of course don’t fit into Michael Gove’s brave new Britain. I don’t much like the way Westminster works and think giving it more power would be absurd, I find the idea of bending the knee to a hereditary monarch pretty stomach-churning, and I don’t think our national anthem is awfully well chosen. And I don’t fit in because that’s all Gove’s Britain amounts to in the end. Beneath the pomp and circumstance, and the trying to outdo others, it’s an empty ideal. I think at this, point, though, it’s worth talking about myself a bit (for which I apologise, but it’s necessary to make the point). I am an academic, born and brought up in rural Norfolk, where I grew up around the nature conservation movement helping (or occasionally probably hindering) around volunteer work parties to improve local habitats for about as long as I can remember. My grandfather, who was very much an influence on me, spent his life fighting to build the network of wildlife trusts that currently spans this country. I’m also a spoken-word storyteller and lover of folk music and dance, and enjoy discovering how those vary across the country with different tales and dance styles rooted in our different regions. I went to a comprehensive school and then to Cambridge, where I ran the Cambridge Tolkien Society for over two years dissecting and enjoying the minutiae of that self-consciously English national myth, and where I helped found the university’s Doctor Who society, probably nowadays one of our country’s largest cultural exports. I’m shy in person, more apologetic than is remotely necessary, prefer quiet pubs with good cider, and drink copious quantities of tea.

Britain is, in other words, rooted deep in my soul’s core. This is my island, my earth, my home.

I don’t believe in Britain? I believe in the Britain that was here before anyone had even dreamed of waving little union jacks, and will be here long after Gove and Goveism are gone.

I believe in the Britain that was built by the footsteps of newcomers; early peoples who came and built hillforts and stone circles, Romans who garrisoned Hadrian’s wall with Syrian archers, Saxons who brought the harsh tongue that would one day become the very one I’m writing in now, Normans, Flemings, Huguenots, Jews, the list runs on. I believe that Britain has the strength to be intelligent in our strategies but unafraid in our compassion. We are not so weak that we must build walls for fear of the other.

I believe in the Britain that does not just sit in a couple of palaces in London, but runs from mountain to moor and field to fen; the Britain which we live in and on, which has been entrusted to us by our forebears and which we hold in trust for our children. Ecosystems are not notable for paying attention to the arbitrary boundaries that humans construct, and we cannot protect them if we don’t have a say in European policy. We have a duty to care for this land, because if we destroy it or allow others to in the name of the Great International Competition, it is gone. It takes strength of mind to conserve what is irreplaceable, and I believe we have that strength.

My Britain has people in it – real people with homes and jobs and lives and loves and hopes and worries – and they are Britain, far more than any abstraction. It is their ability to express themselves democratically for which we must indeed fight to reform Europe, but it is also their democratic rights that our tyranny of the plurality is threatening in Westminster. Their rights to be safe, to spend time with the people they love – those are things that Europe guarantees against people like Michael Gove, to whom none of that really matters in service of the all-important nation; his Britain is a monarchy made up of subjects, mine is a community made up of humans.

My Britain is the one that knew that a democratic community of nations was worth fighting for against the horrors that nationalism wreaked on our (our) continent. My Britain has bones that lie across the fields of Europe because short-sighted leaders thought that winning was everything, and my Britain remembers that what matters is not whether you win, but for whom you win.

My Britain treasures and seeks knowledge – of the past, of the present, of the future. It knows and holds onto and builds upon its stories and its songs, and adds them to new ones from new people, always building and always growing but never, never forgetting.

My Britain exists. It is vast and ancient and beautiful. And because it’s such a wonderful, diverse, powerful thing, this hubbub of confusion, this land of wood and hill and mist and rain, this island of immigrants… it is strong. Seen next to the big reality of everything that we are, the empty veneer of nationalism is just so, so small.

So never, ever tell me that I don’t believe in Britain.

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