Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I do love this country. But I am not a guest

Yates of the Yard - what a man! He had to be grilled slowly on a spit by the Select Committee
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The Independent Online

I could have written today about new government figures showing a rise of 12 per cent in racist attacks from 2005-2006 – that is, one year. I could get all indignant over corruption, the coy and willing handmaiden of power. This week she peeped out to reveal the unjustifiable expenses of MPs and exposed herself in other high places.

Journalists reveal grubby facts, discomfit complacency. That's our job. Sometimes, though, readers need to know we are not all cynical gin-soaks who see no good anywhere.

I have had an unusually large number of emails and letters from Britons who were either "disappointed" or incandescent that I go on and on and on about what is wrong with the country that, in their eyes, gave me shelter. Others can criticise the way British children are faring, but for me, a dark immigrant, to do so, is seen as gross impoliteness. If people like me argue for equality, we are asking for "special treatment". If we question Government policies we are accused of grievous ingratitude. "Why don't you write something appreciative for a change?" asks a retired colonel.

After I had performed my show at the Lewes Literary Festival to a terrific audience, a woman came up to me and said gently: "You sound so different, so demanding in the papers and on TV. Maybe sometimes you should be a little easier on us."

Perhaps I should. Perhaps I should also say more often what makes this country irresistible, why I couldn't live anywhere else. I am not proclaiming the realm as the greatest in the world – an absurd contention for any nation. But as an insider/outsider, I see both the hollow lies and the unique attributes of our adopted nation – in some ways more than those born into those privileges.

Take the last seven days. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourne, one of "them", a chap in the belly of the establishment, was shamed into retiring early after newspaper revelations of his expenses amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. It was scandalous because that sort of thing rarely happens. In general, men and women in the civil service and other public bodies have an unwavering commitment to probity and to the checks and balances to ensure the system remains pure, even if and when someone fails to live by those rules.

There are very few countries that can say, as we can, that most are truly incorruptible and meticulously careful. I am married to one of them, and I swear he secretes his briefcase and Blackberry in such places, I have never managed to come upon them. Coming from Africa, and of course being a nosy journo, this absolute discretion used to irritate, but now I do see the point.

Look at "Yates of the Yard" – what a man! He had to appear in the Commons to be grilled slowly on a spit by the public administration Select Committee. (It is a disgrace that the scrutinising MPs turned on an honest officer assiduously investigating those in government who did plan to offer peerages to individuals doing "public service" by making large party donations.)

I know that Mr Yates was anxious about what would happen in the bullring. I know because I sensed it when we had a drink a few weeks back – just a friendly drink as he is a local and our daughters go to the same school. Yet he didn't press me to take his side and was careful beyond the call of duty on what he should say. We disagreed strongly about Met commissioners past, but I was left in no doubt about his integrity and messianic commitment to the rule of law. There are still too many bad cops in the system, but good, courageous cops, too. Yates won and sleazebags lost, which made me quite proud to be British.

On Thursday, Gordon Brown's speech on liberty was almost as winning. Oh, I have many cross times rebuffing and fighting against the words and policies of our new PM, and the latest is his abject failure to stop legalised domestic violence against children, what some call simple, "smacking". However, not since Vaclav Havel have I heard a leader make such an unabashedly intellectual and profound declaration of universal ethical principles.

Bush and Blair now seem like little men, squirmy, fidgety dwarves. Brown will, hopefully, deliver some of the promises embedded in the weighty oration, which awakened many from political inertia and made them hope again. Politics, I accept, is always trade-off and compromise. To regain its international reputation, and national honour, Britain now needs less institutionalised duplicity ( Blair's biggest talent) and more honesty and self-respect. Brown seemed to give us a little of that last week.

On the same day as the Brown speech, we went to a film premiere in Leicester Square. Red carpets were down, punters had gathered in the dripping rain to see Colin Firth and his wife Livia, both producers of a remarkable documentary, In Prison My Whole Life. The film is about the African-American prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on death row for an unbelievable 24 years, and whose original trial judge was demonstrably racist.

The film linked this abomination with Abu Ghraib, the execution of the Rosenbergs and the treatment of the Black Panthers in that land of the free. This is the ugly America, usually covered over with the stars and stripes. The Firths will be damned by patriotic Americans, including their fans. Like many other British "luvvies", so derided by the press – Juliet Stevenson, Emma Thompson, Ken Loach – they use their names for a greater good. There are such people in the USA, but today most have been silenced.

Then comes the 50th birthday of the Today programme – spiky, infuriating, alert, intelligent and, like much of Radio 4, omega oil for the brain. The BBC, undergoing a nervous breakdown at present, is precious and incomparable and that is because it is publicly funded, a very British thing. What would we be without Jeremy Paxman and James Naughtie, John Humphrys and Jenni Murray, Andrew Marr and Libby Purves, Eddie Maire and Gavin Esler?

In seven short days, there has been as much to cheer as there has been to jeer at in this country. The same institution or public person can bring me out in hives or songs of praise. That is the right we have in a thriving democracy, or so I believe as a free citizen. (How sweet that freedom.)

However, immigrants are still described as guests, who must only extol or else cause offence to our hosts. Although we were the unwanted children of the old Empire, we are family now, part of the noisy and mixed household, quarrelling and loving, stuck together, for better or worse. And this is my paean to that familial nation.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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