Pull the curtains tight. The light hurts our eyes and we are tired

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The Independent Online
SLOWLY but surely Britain is drawing the blinds against the outside world. Large sections of the British people, including many in high office, are turning away from all meaningful contact with those troublesome foreigners, particularly the poor ones.

Politicians encourage us to fear and mistrust our partners in the European Union. We seem to be less and less keen on knowing what's going on in the outside world. According to "The Cruellest Cut", a submission just made to the Treasury by three major aid agencies, the Government is about to cut the hamstrings of that already tired and anaemic packhorse, the British aid programme. Should we care, when foreigners no longer give this sceptred isle the respect it once commanded?

Meanwhile, inside the shuttered rooms of Bleak House, Merrie England is packaged, promoted and marketed for all it's worth. The supposed virtues of Queen Victoria's society are lauded and the roots of our island race are dug up, examined and stroked. It's a fair bet that Rule Britannia will be sung with more than the usual fervour at this year's Proms - not just because this is the centenary of the concerts.

There are understandable reasons for this slide into insularity. The Empire has gone and the personal connection of generations of families with a wider world has gone with it. The great flows of migration, inward and outward, are things of the past (though a trickle of canny Chinese are quitting Britain and going back to Hong Kong, where the prospects are better). British soldiers are no longer called to risk their lives in the cause of colonial rule in Cyprus, Kenya, Aden or Palestine.

The end of the imperial dream has been accompanied by a retreat from engagement with any global affairs, unless they bring an immediate commercial return. The Commonwealth and its heads of government conferences are little more than photo opportunities for the bejewelled Head of the Commonwealth's fairy-tale graciousness. If the Commonwealthmattered at all, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - which these days prefers to be known as the FO - wouldn't have allowed the roof of the Commonwealth Institute in South Kensington to leak so embarrassingly all those years for want of money to mend it.

Anyway, says the Government, poor countries are not important, whether they are in or outside the Commonwealth. The overseas aid budget, slashed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, is shrinking still. By 1998 it will be worth only three-quarters of what it was in 1993.

That deeply unimpressive body, the Overseas Development Administration, is even now planning to cut British aid to Africa by 16 per cent. The ODA, which brought you the Pergau Dam affair, sent its minister, Lady Chalker, to Indonesia the other day. The visit, presented as an aid initiative, was a chance to give yet another subsidy to the already fabulously rich family of General Suharto, the Indonesian president - and to make sure he continues to buy British arms.

Take the current British attitude to the United Nations. Foreign policy makers in Westminster and Whitehall are keen enough to try and preserve that supreme symbol of national prestige, the United Kingdom's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But they don't want to pay the dues. This year there are to be cuts in British contributions to the UN World Food Programme, the UN Fund for Children and the UN Development Programme, all of which directly affect the world's poorest people. Her Majesty's Government continues its solemn boycott of Unesco, saying it cannot find the money to rejoin.

Nearer home, memories of Britain's splendid isolation have returned and distrust of continentals has blossomed, succouring the opponents of the European Union. A wave of xenophobia has been whipped up which has amazed all our 14 partners in the Union and the dozen governments which are jostling for the opportunity to join. But Enoch Powell is seen as an honourable elder statesman. Norman Tebbit and Bill Cash spout their spurious anti- European vapourings. No one dares to giggle. A Home Secretary whose Eastern European Jewish forebears sought a better life in Britain explains why Britain must be stricter with asylum seekers. Few take issue.

Britain's economic and military pre-eminence, which sustained splendid isolation in the 19th century, are no more. The British have worse social services, are probably more badly educated and are certainly poorer than most EU citizens. Fifty years ago my mother told me to eat up my crusts with the injunction to "remember the starving children of Europe". The British Red Cross has long ceased to send food parcels to the Ruhr and to Rotterdam; now it aids malnourished British communities from Edinburgh to Exeter. The continentals, who once received our pity, are now objects of unfocused envy and uncomprehending resentment.

Few people in Britain understand very well what's going on. Fewer still protest as the curtains are pulled tight. Most people today get their foreign news from television. That is fine. Often the immediacy of news footage of disasters and atrocities provokes outpourings of humanitarian concern and financial donations for people abroad which could not be achieved by any other medium. Television news sets agendas which governments and aid agencies cannot ignore.

But the public's empathy does not extend to understanding. Explanation and analysis take second place as editors race to get more arresting pictures than their rivals. The BBC Nine O'Clock News has to be better than Channel 4 News at 7pm. ITN's News at 10 strives to be better than both.

None of the television news reports on Rwanda succeeded in explaining the deep-seated mutual loathing of Hutus and Tutsis, nor why war broke out so disastrously between two people who shared the same language, customs and religion. Perhaps the reporters never found out. Certainly there was no time on the bulletins for them to explain if they did. It must be said that good explanations and analyses were rare even in newspapers whose hard-pressed foreign budgets are regularly slashed. The same applies to coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Earlier this year 3WE, a foreign aid think-tank, produced a survey which showed that documentary output on international topics on the four main channels had fallen by 40 per cent over five years. In 1989-90, for instance, ITV produced 173 hours, by 1993-94 it was down to 39 hours. The broadcasters would never dare to cut back Brookside or EastEnders so brutally.

It is idle to try and sustain much interest in what goes on in the rest of the world in a Britain in which large sections of the population are slipping into poverty, in which job security is becoming the exception rather than the rule and in which those in jobs have to work harder and longer to keep them than anywhere else in the EU. Perhaps Britons who are themselves facing economic insecurity can empathise with the insecurity of refugees and will send them a pound or two. But they do not want to be worried about the underlying causes of other people's problems. It shows in the income of the aid agencies. The 1994 Christmas appeal of one of them was 15 per cent down on the previous year.

When old, ill-maintained houses are shut up and darkened theysometimes become home to colonies of bats. Bats cannot bear the sunlight, so they spend the day with their eyes closed, hanging upside-down from whatever their claws can grab on to.