Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Cameron is mistaken about what really makes us great

It is hard to believe that Cameron was once in public relations. His campaign is feeble, unpersuasive, culturally illiterate, inconsistent and fraudulent

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The Independent Online

I know, I am being a pest again, a PC flea in the armpits of the nation, making it prickly and splenetic. You think I like it? Nipping and biting is no fun let me tell you. But for now I must be a major irritant on this subject – David Cameron and his campaign, inviting people around the world to come visit, study, work and invest in "Great" Britain because it has heritage, green grass, businessmen, shoe shops, viaducts, music festivals, unlike all those other un-great nations on Earth.

With posters and postcards symbolising all these, the Tories aim to clean away memories of the recent riots and the PM's own dystopic admonitions about morally bust Britain and last week's apocalyptic warnings about the economy by Vince Cable and Nick Clegg. The esteemed American journalist Stryker McGuire points out Cameron's "unfortunate duplicity" when he talks about "broken" Britain at home and "great" Britain abroad.

It's hard to believe that Cameron was once a director of communications of a media conglomerate. His campaign is feeble, unpersuasive, culturally illiterate, inconsistent, fraudulent and fails utterly to reflect the shape and soul of our nation, which like all others has a mixed story to tell. Shameful things have been done and are done in its name, and yet Britain's many aspects and achievements are hugely admired.

The term Great Britain was not meant to be a boastful appellation but described the coming together of England, Scotland and Wales into a bigger and united polity. An astoundingly backward selection of images have been picked to represent it. Scan this panorama and there are no women, though one poster does feature a killingly high stiletto shoe. Royalty is represented by the obese wife killer Henry VIII. Adele is mentioned in the small print. Misogynist visitors hoping to escape femaleness will surely get a shock when they land.

Just as scandalous is the total absence of the racial and cultural mix that defines London, our extraordinary metropolis. I lie. The prosthetic arm, representing innovation, is shiny black, a careless slip perhaps. We would never have won the Olympics with such a mendacious, whitewashed sales pitch. That bid celebrated our energetic and multifarious land. Should our athletes and players of colour choose to boycott the British team, the number of British medals wouldn't fill a Smythson's business card wallet designed by the fragrant Samantha Cameron. Billionaire Asian businessmen, black newsreaders, Sayeeda Warsi, the female Muslim Tory Cabinet member, actors like Adrian Lester, singers like Leona Lewis – none of them are good enough to be Great Britain's representatives. (Nor, incidentally, good enough to be Lib Dem MPs either. At their conference last week, it was clear that its ministers patronise their black and Asian supporters and feel no sense of urgency to change their mono-racial slate and make it more reflective of the country.)

Let us go on to Cameron's invitation to visit and study. Immigrant-phobia means student visas are now routinely denied to so many overseas applicants, that our universities warn soon few will even bother to apply. I get countless emails from African, Asian, Caribbean and Arab Britons complaining that relatives from their old homelands are denied visitor's visas, even for weddings. Is Cameron going to do something about these institutional barriers? Or is his message of welcome extended only to Americans and Canadians? We are ruled by a Coalition of chauvinism and folly, a government that knows not its diverse and extraordinary country, still speaks white unto white. New Labour was as bad as this lot with Blair's "Cool" Britannia, empty of content like bubbles in sparkling water, and Brown's obsessive, retro-Britishness which he tried to thump into us all.

Great Britain is not well understood by those we have elected. It is so much more than they have the capacity to imagine and so much more complicated than their vacuous soundbites. We know about the many national ills and failures – including entrenched inequality, selfishness, unruliness, warmongering, unfairness and increasing coarseness. However, the list of reasons to feel good about Britain is longer and sometimes outsiders appreciate those more than do insiders.

Take the mesmerising Educating Essex on Channel 4 – a fly-on-the-wall documentary in a comprehensive school which shows exceptionally humane and committed teachers and the idealism of state educators.

My Ugandan teachers would have beaten at least five of the pupils or thrown them out forever. That is Britain at its best. The NHS too was built on the idea of equality, excellence and collective healthcare. This small island has given the world amazing innovations and produced a vast number of pioneers in science and high and popular arts.



Our racially and culturally varied population is routinely decried by millions of Britons and some powerful and influential leaders. But imagine turning the clock back to the 1950s, to the safe and dull place they say it was then. How many indigenous Britons would, in all honesty, return to those times? In spite of racism, this nation has always been open to change, that is the secret of its success. We migrants have been part of that edgy and unfixed culture and beneficiaries too of long-settled constitutional entitlements. Britain, uniquely, gave incomers the vote as soon as they arrived. We have rights and freedoms we never had in our old countries, not even when they were under the British.

The struggle to keep those alive is unending. I spoke at a fringe meeting organised by Liberty at the Lib Dem conference. Chaired by the brilliant Shami Chakrabarti (the daughter of immigrants), the meeting was about defending the Human Rights Act, hated by the Tories who want to replace it with a more limited bill of rights. The room was packed with activists who understand that human rights are sacred and belong to the good, bad and ugly, the deserving and undeserving. Remember it was Churchill who instigated and pushed for the European Convention on Human Rights. That was Britain being great. Cameron's PR stunt is not. It only grates.

y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk

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