In the wake of the referendum I’m seeing a few people commenting on Facebook that they are “proud to be British”. This baffles me really. Why should they be proud to be British? It’s not their achievement – it’s not actually an achievement at all, just chance. The only people who have a right to be proud of a citizenship are those who worked for it, ie immigrants, not those who simply inherited it.
So if I’m not actually proud do I, as a British national, think the UK is best country in the world? Not really, because it depends on the criteria – there are a lot of things that I wish were different. Every country has at least some negative aspects. But I’m not interested in comparing the UK with other countries just so that I can feel superior. Perhaps that’s why I really don’t care whether a British team wins or loses some pointless ball game/race/insert competition of your choice here. National one-upmanship doesn’t interest me in the slightest. The UK is comfortable and familiar, our families and closest friends are here, and when the sun shines the scenery can be lovely, but if I had more money and/or better language skills I might choose to live elsewhere at least part of the time. If I could, visa regulations allowing – my options there just got more uncertain of course.
Am I proud of Britain’s contribution to the world then? Again, I don’t think I have the right to feel proud because my personal part in that is less than negligible. And while Britain has contributed a lot of good and useful things, they are counterbalanced by a propensity to meddle in other countries in order to selfishly advance what are seen as Britain’s best interests (or rather the best interests of our ruling elite) (and I’m not just talking about things far back in history). Some people seem particularly proud that Britain “exports democracy”, but “export” implies a trade arrangement with a willing importer (except in the case of opium to 19th century China of course). We don’t so much export democracy as attempt to impose it on people, whether they want it or not, whether it suits their culture and stage in development or not. And if they seem less than keen, we try to bomb them or blackmail them until they accept. It’s good for us Brits so it must be good for them, we are arrogant enough to believe. I’m certainly not proud of that.
Do I at least feel lucky to be British? Of course – there are so many less comfortable places in the world to be born. I’m not wealthy by UK standards but I enjoy a quality of life that only the richest in most countries could even dream of. I had free education, I get (mostly) free healthcare, I’m reasonably safe, it’s clean and convenient, corruption is comparatively minimal, and I have more than enough money to keep myself warm and fed. I’m very thankful for it. But let’s face it, most citizens of western Europe and a few other places would probably say the same.
To be honest, nationalism and patriotism strike me as concepts that have outlived their usefulness – we have split ourselves into teams based on where on planet Earth we live and what language we speak and sometimes what religion we follow, and that seems to play a far more important role in our lives than it deserves. We want to keep the majority of resources for our own team as much as we can (even if we originally took them by force from other teams). We feel safest with members of our own team. We place more value on the lives and wellbeing of our team mates than others. Why? Because, subconsciously, we hope they’ll feel the same way and protect us. It’s an evolutionary survival thing – no different from wolf packs and elephant herds.
But the world is now a smaller place. We can travel to the other side of it in 24 hours. We can communicate instantly with people anywhere. Environmental issues and globalisation of trade mean that almost anything one country does affects others. On our recent travels it struck me just how much things have changed since we first visited Asia in 1987. The differences between places are less pronounced – there’s much less of a sense of being in a strange place.
So isn’t it time we stopped thinking in such parochial terms? Instead of just cheering for “our team”, wouldn’t it make more sense to work towards a better future for everybody? Because our futures and wellbeing are all interlinked – the old national competition model doesn’t work any more. That’s why I think the decision to leave the EU is such a backwards step, a return to a situation where our overriding priority is what happens on our miniscule patch of land, to the people in our little team. “Hurrah!” say the Brexiteers, “No more being told what to do by people from other teams, no more having to compromise on our team’s best interests in order to serve a wider good. We can do what WE want”. Surely they can’t be oblivious to the fact that this is precisely the attitude that has led to conflict and mutual destruction between teams since time immemorial – or do they just not care?
Perhaps they don’t. It’s very noticeable that the vast majority of those taking that stance are those who won’t suffer the worst of its possible consequences. The ones whose pensions are already in the bag, whose mortgages are paid off or whose council house tenancy is secure, who are too old to be required to fight any armed conflict, who are retired or near the end of their career and so don’t mind having their potential job-hunting field reduced to a tiny fraction of what it was. The ones old enough to look back through misty lenses to some mis-remembered fantasy of what Britain was like ‘before’, conveniently forgetting all the bad aspects. The ones who haven’t had the gumption to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the EU so see only it’s negatives, but who couldn’t be bothered to work for improvement from within the organisation (or, in most cases, even turn out to vote for an MEP). Or the ones already so far down the economic ladder (for whatever reason) that they have nowhere to fall, and have been guided into blaming the EU for that fact.
The way the world is arranged now means that I have to have citizenship of a particular piece of land defined as a country – I have to join a national team, even though I’d rather be in a global one. That country happens to be the UK, and I haven’t (yet) found one that I want to replace it. But, as someone from the Quitters generation who might be mistaken for one of their number, don’t expect me to be brandishing my passport with pride any time soon.