Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The British must learn some humility

If Tony Blair is bad, Gordon Brown will be worse, because he is pumped up with the iron of imperial patriotism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What's wrong with Britain? Why are so many Britons unruly, brash, ill-mannered, easily violent and disrespectful? I grapple with these questions, which are raised with alarming frequency around the world. Most folks cannot understand why this nation's character and reputation degenerate further with each decade, almost in direct proportion to its growing GDP. How is it that a country which ruled the waves and sought to "civilise" millions fails now to civilise its own?

When hideous England fans swept into Stuttgart, like Mongols, only without purpose, broadcasters produced a run of excuses - it was too hot, this was only a minority, the police didn't know how to manage English temperaments. Imagine what would happen if during the 2012 Olympics, the Germans or Senegalese or Pakistanis ran amok in Trafalgar Square? No such caveats would be proffered. There is one rule for British tribes and another for the rest.

Immigrants are often blamed for this social collapse, but I don't think cunning criminal-asylum seekers whited up to make hell in Stuttgart. These relentless bad boys are a product of our past. Yobs may have no GCSEs, but they sure carry in their noses the smell of colonial entitlement and supremacy. As do many of the middle-class Brits who are inspired by TV programmes to buy that new life in Andalusia, in Limoges, Cape Town, or these days Krakow. Though they may need the cash, most residents of these places detest the island immigrants who treat them as foreigners in their own lands.

Wilful British leaders cannot work as equals with their partners in the European Union. With the exception of Edward Heath who understood the need for such a union, all our prime ministers have been a catastrophe, wanting to be top bulldog and to disable the edifice at the same time, built so painstakingly by continental Europeans after the two bloody wars. If Tony Blair is bad, Gordon Brown will be worse, because he is now pumped up with the iron of imperial patriotism.

Revisionism always washes out any attempt made to deal honestly with our labyrinthine imperial history and its continuing impact on those who were subjugated and those who ruled the waves. Last week, I was invited by Channel 4 to a fine dinner in the Cabinet War Rooms. There, between the main course and dessert, we were to be educated by Niall Ferguson, the anointed History Boy of our time. Ferguson is brilliant, no question. He orates without any script, asserts his views without bothering to justify them, thinks with speed, leaving his audience gasping for breath. Our media power merchants and US Neo-cons adore him because his is comfort history for Empire addicts and dystopian fantasists.

The end of European rule abroad led to global disorder, to Indian Partition, to the world wars - remedy, bring on American imperialism, latch on to the US, uncertain at the apogee but a welcome surrogate for vanished British supremacy. Nothing, please note, about how the British set up conditions for the post-independence chaos. The teacher and historian Percival Spear in 1965 wrote honestly about these policy failures and the bloodshed that flowed from them. But these lessons were never learnt by the children of our nation. All they know is that being British means never having to say sorry.

Like many other immigrant Brits, I am old enough to have lived through several chapters of modern British history. I was raised under colonial rule, then came independence, then too soon afterwards the collapse of all idealism as brutes took control to confirm colonial pessimism and racism about the darker peoples. At times immoral imperialists cynically facilitated the collapse of new nations always with the help of obliging and greedy natives.

Now I live among my past masters and their descendents, claim equality with them, and struggle against postures of superiority and falsified narratives. At the same time a new attachment is formed with my adopted homeland, love grows between old Britons and new, who must but can't break from the past.

Post-colonial psychologist, Octave Mannoni examined the deep and mutual relationship between colonised and coloniser in his 1964 book Prospero and Caliban. He wrote perceptively: "The problem of colonisation didn't only concern the overseas countries ... If certain cultures prove capable of destroying others the destructive forces brought forth by these cultures also act internally." And these forces remain long after time has moved on.

There are many reasons for Britain to feel good about itself. Most immigrants would rather live and die in this country than any other in Europe. Our political institutions, the BBC, universities, artists, pop-stars and, yes, footballers should make us proud. But it really is time we stopped bragging that we are always the best when we are patently not.

After the US we have the largest per capita prison population in the world - bigger even than Libya. The UK is becoming ever more violent, and the chances of a child dying from physical abuse here is six times greater than in Spain. We have the worst road rage in Europe and have higher rates of binge drinking, eating and drug use than most of our EU partners.UK personal debt is also the highest in Europe as are teenage pregnancy rates.

The problem with large numbers of indigenous Britons is that they know all this and it scares them. Furthermore as the world changes at dizzying speed and the centres of economic and cultural power shift, they cling even more determinedly to old stories and invented glories. They need to be taught not ever grander versions of who they are and have been, nor Gordon Brown's arrogant patriotism, nor "liberal nationalism" so fashionable of late, but some humility and internationalism. It can be done.

Last Friday I went to Ditchley Park, a lovely old manor house in Oxfordshire where Churchill and other old imperial champions once played croquet. A group of young people from here and abroad had been brought together by the British Council to foster connections. They were smart, able, open, and, yes, humble, as they discovered each other.

A Bosnian Muslim man, orphaned in the war, only 21, speaks a dozen and more languages, and is rebuilding his country. A Zimbabwean refugee, also an orphan, was more sophisticated than a 30-year-old. One young Brit said to me: "It makes me realise how little we know, how little we are, how hard we have to work to catch up with people made strong by their histories." That is the lesson our football ambassadors need to learn before it really is too late.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments