Leading Article: Walk tall, and look the world in the eye

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The Independent Online
FIFTY YEARS ago, Britain was experiencing perhaps its finest moments. The country had stood firm in western Europe with a toughness and moral rectitude against Nazism and German expansionism. The Empire was like a machine working flat out in an immensely complex operation that proved hugely successful. Britain was, of course, bankrupt, as Churchill realised as early as 1944. Its greatest triumph coincided with exhaustion. Yet in spite of these costs, patriotism could be judged unambiguously as a virtue. Peace seemed only to increase this feeling as creation of the welfare state and the transformation of Empire into Commonwealth reinforced confidence in the loftiness of national morality.

Five decades on, as preparations are under way to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day, expressions of patriotism seem to have been transformed into narrow, sour chauvinism. John Major's borrowing this week of Thatcherite anti-European rhetoric was a worrying development. The Tories run the risk of belittling Britain by fostering a resentful, xenophobic streak that has long been latent. It used to be prevalent particularly among those embittered by the failure of this country's post-war economic achievements to match her military victory. The well- worn refrain 'Who won the bloody war, anyway?' summed up the attitude.

These feelings were brought to the surface again this week by the news that Germans will be present at the VE Day celebrations. A gift to the right-wing tabloids, the ambiguity of the announcement allowed them 24 hours of hysteria as they raised the always false spectre of former storm-troopers goose-stepping up Whitehall. Eventually, it was made clear that such a parade had never been planned.

Amid this atmosphere of chauvinistic rabble-rousing, there is a danger that the tradition of open-minded love of country will be subverted. Many people are proud to be patriotic when that stands for toleration, a sense of proportion, a welcome for foreigners and a sense of responsibility in the world. These principles still survive. In Bosnia, Britain has belatedly but enthusiastically taken a leading role in challenging ethnic chauvinism. But Britain's bellicose posturing in Brussels could drown out these important values.

Some may argue that this nasty manifestation of nationalism is only a passing phase. They hope that it will have no lasting significance beyond, perhaps, saving the Tory party from internal strife and electoral disaster in the European elections. Yet Mr Major need look no farther than a few miles from Westminster to see the dangers of according respectability to cultural chauvinism. As the island of Britain grows more insular, xenophobia is gaining a grip on the Isle of Dogs, east London. There, voters are looking to the neo-fascist British National Party for their salvation. At the local elections in May, the BNP may gain enough votes to control the area's pounds 23m budget.

Politicians cannot afford to be careless and allow patriotism or nationalism to be hijacked for short-term political gain. These are potent forces that can cause great damage if they are not steered towards constructive engagement with different peoples, rather than hostility.

Mr Major must not give in to the Euro- sceptics. He should heed Douglas Hurd's warning yesterday against 'a sour, defensive attitude which concentrates exclusively on the negative things about the European Union'. The Prime Minister's role is to lead Britain confidently in Europe. This country need not fear pooling some of its sovereignty, but should feel assured that it can shape not only its own future, but also the nature of Europe.

Britain's high points have been when it looked outwards as a great seapower, and not inwards as island peoples sometimes do. Our sense of self-worth comes from constructive involvement with the wider world, not the pursuit of narrow self-interest. Mr Major must have been reminded of this during his trip to Bosnia amid the destruction of misdirected nationalism. Let him not forget that experience.