Saturday 12 May 2007
Jemima Lewis: The greatest nation on earth? I don't think so
My people, whose achievements and institutions were supposed to be the envy of the world, seemed glum
It was perhaps fitting that Tony Blair should conclude his resignation speech with an audacious fib. But his contention that Britain "is the greatest nation on earth" was startling even by his own standards of hogwash.
For one thing, Britons just don't say things like that any more: not since we gave up pith helmets and waxed moustaches and ruling the world. This is not a matter of false modesty (though that is one of the few fields in which we genuinely do excel) but of reluctant realism. A nation may be great in lots of ways - at ice hockey, say, or the preservation of rural crafts - but only one nation at a time can be The Greatest, and we all know it is no longer us.
I say this as a self-proclaimed patriot: one who can well understand the longing to be bigger and more important than we really are. As a child, reared on a literary diet of Enid Blyton and The Adventures of Bulldog Drummond, I was afflicted by a patriotic fervour sadly at odds with the reality of Seventies Britain.
The country to which I felt I belonged was a place of derring-do and supreme self-confidence; of high tea, bowler hats, pea-soupers and pipe-smoking chaps who were canoeing down the Amazon to civilise the natives. The country in which I actually lived was one of national strikes, post-colonial guilt, power cuts (those were good, actually - Blitz spirit and all that) and frizzy-haired middle-class mothers marching for CND. The people - my people, whose achievements and institutions were supposed to be the envy of the world - had seemed unaccountably glum.
It gradually dawned on me why. Britain was no longer great: America ruled the waves. Worse, it did so through seduction. Everything cool and exciting about modern life - ketchup, jeans, Judy Blume - hailed from across the Atlantic. Even the beloved Muppets turned out to be American. (I had assumed their funny accents were just part of the madcap British comedy.) After that, my disillusionment became a kind of addiction. I would torture myself by reading the packaging on everything, from shampoo to sherbet dips, to see whether the manufacturer had an American address. It always did.
It has taken three decades and a spell living in New York to conquer my jealousy of America. Some people never do: hence the toxic anti-Americanism that afflicts so many frustrated patriots the world over. Never mind the geopolitics: the French hate the Americans because they regard themselves as the rightful guardians of democracy, and because they, like us, have been humiliated by the loss of an empire.
Sooner or later, of course, America too will be usurped. Already there is a fin de siècle mood in the air. The US press is full of anxious reports counting down the years/days before China overtakes them in GDP or military strength; and although America retains its cultural dominance, a note of self-doubt is beginning to creep in - a hand-wringing, where-did-it-all-go wrong gloominess that seems curiously, well, British. Even the dewy-eyed redneck who declares his country the greatest on God's earth (the sort of detested character that our Prime Minister, inexplicably, chose to imitate) sometimes seems to be protesting a little too much.
The urge to love your country is instinctive, even if it leads to disappointment and renunciation. It is partly the result of pure narcissism: this country produced my family and friends - and, crucially, me - so it must be the best. Patriotism is often most vehement among those people, such as the white working classes, who have little to thank their country for. Just as a certain kind of screwed-up aristocrat will dispatch his son to the same public school where he endured years of ritual bullying and sodomy, on the grounds that "it didn't do me any harm", so the unfashionable and marginalised are often the most fiercely attached to their neglectful motherland.
But it is possible to be patriotic without jingoism or self-deception. At its best, national pride is just a broadening out of familial and local pride - an entirely natural fondness for the things we know and understand. As the Chinese author Lin Yutang put it: "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?"
The national idiosyncrasies that make my heart swell these days could not exactly be described as symptoms of greatness. I like lollipop ladies, rainy holidays in Devon, the Cockney Turks who run my local Costcutter. I like porky teenage girls who aren't embarrassed to wear crop tops, and the continued resistance of British men to all forms of grooming. I like the multicultural, gender-bending amorphousness of our new national identity, and our reluctance to discuss it lest it ends in tears.
Indeed, the delicate self-deprecation of all our national discourse - as if it pained us even to admit that we exist - is perhaps Britain's most distinguishing characteristic. Unlike our Prime Minister, we are not a boastful nation; and that, at least, is something to be proud of.
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