This is still an island of delight: Andrew Graham-Yooll is convinced there is much that remains great about Britain, present government excepted

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The Independent Online
MODIFY W H AUDEN to make a point: 'Look, Britons, at this island now/The leaping light for your delight discovers.' Instead of addressing the poet's hail to outsiders ('Look, stranger]') direct it at the native-born to say at Easter that Britain is still OK. It is a still generous, tolerant land.

Perhaps it seems perverse to argue in favour of Britain amid the gloom of recession and under the tutelage of what is arguably the most corrupt government this century. The Government is a stumbling block in the path of praise. But there is a favourable side worth seeing.

Spring facilitates the effort, even if the weather forecast is monotonous in its repetition of 'scattered intervals and sunny showers', because town and country look green and colourful and new. The British people's dogged devotion to their countryside is touching, and can really be found only in nations at peace with themselves. Such concern speaks of decency. There are no volcanoes or hurricanes, which makes for untroubled existence; some people are still talking about the drought of 1976 and the gales of 1987. It is a luxury to have only two such extremes to recall.

But what makes Britain most habitable is its air of tolerance, which gives it an advantage in this time of turmoil - with civil war in the Balkans and the rise of racism in Germany and France, and more recession and upheaval everywhere else. The British brand of tolerance can be ascribed to indolence, of course, or to indifference. It might be wiser to attribute it to the resoluteness and determination of the public not to allow disruption at home.

What is a blessing in a bloody world is that most British are good at assimilating the differences in their midst, even if they disapprove of them. And, however that quality of acceptance is diagnosed, peaceful coexistence works here.

With four million unemployed (yes, four million, taking three million registered and another million on supplementary benefit and training schemes), it feels awkward to say that the United Kingdom is a great place to be. But try. What is good about Britain?

Well, the postal system works, for a start. A cheque I sent for the deposit on the purchase of a house was delivered the next day. And I never stopped to worry that the cheque might be stolen.

Most streets of the great cities are more or less safe for women to walk in alone, despite a rise in reported attacks. Rabies is known only by name here, whereas it stalks many capitals.

And police are still unarmed, which, for anybody who has lived under tyranny or militarised policing, makes for a peace of mind that is not easily valued. So, here I admit that I come from elsewhere, and it was on arrival in London that I appreciated the pleasure of shutting both eyes peacefully at night. That does not prevent me from lashing out at the police for not living up to my expectation. The rights and wrongs of free societies are there to be seen, and to ignore them is to misuse the freedom countries claim to offer.

This kingdom is rich in human endeavour which, through individual and team persistence, has produced some of the great advances known to mankind. It is infuriating that there is little development of good ideas for the benefit of the nation. They are sold to Japanese companies or German and US pharmaceutical corporations. But they originate here.

The enterprise springs from what is still a generally good, though struggling, educational system. British youth is articulate, entertaining and disorderly. This is delightful, if sometimes oafish. The generations that some would like to see return were polite, orderly and disciplined. For that good behaviour they were taken into two wars that killed them in their millions. Better an unruly youth than a dead one, even if, travelling on the Underground, I might sometimes mutter otherwise.

There is a healthy awareness among the young that Britain can no longer look to its past for anything but museum contents. The country's morbid attachment to the memory of old wars is stagnating. And so was the demanded respect for monarchy. There is something obscene in the required reverence for a 'first family' that has no qualification to reign other than being stinking rich. A new wave of youthful criticism will eventually reduce the monarchy to the corporation it is, concerned mostly with its income. Royal significance is being cut in a very British way - slowly, with due regard for ancient custom and without much distress.

What a comfortable way to bring about a necessary change.

There is much more that is palpably good. Theatre, film, understatement . . . and where else in the world does the traffic stop when you step off the pavement on to a strip of black and white lines? I like British television, at least 50 per cent of which - BBC 2 and Channel 4 - is the finest in the world. The British press is the best and most varied in the world, including the brilliant Sun. Reporting is persistent, commentary is informed, and certain papers even publish a poem every day. What more can anyone ask for?

The National Health Service still works in places; and where it does it is remarkable, in spite of the Government. So really, the problem is not with the country. It is the Government that needs changing. Fourteen years in office are too many. Political parties grow smug, unenterprising, arrogant and short of new ideas if left too long in government. Really, the solution to Britain's problems is quite simple.

But whatever the recipes, the line of an author named Alice Duer Miller, in a book called The White Cliffs, published in 1941, still rings true to me: 'I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive. But in a world where England is finished and dead, I do not wish to live.' Which is what I wanted to say all


The author was born in Argentina and is the editor of 'Index on Censorship'. His book on Britain, 'Point of Arrival. Observations Made on an Extended Visit', was published by Pluto Press last year.

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