It occurs when other nations or peoples have good cause to rebuke us. When General Dyer opened fire in April 1919 on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar in India and killed 379 of them, many British people were ashamed; AJP Taylor said it was the decisive moment when Indians were alienated from British rule. On the other hand, Neville Chamberlain's agreement with Hitler at Munich in 1938, which sanctioned German occupation of part of Czechoslovakia, was welcomed by the entire British press except one left- wing Sunday paper and the Communist Daily Worker. Feelings of revulsion came later.
So we come to the past three months, a period in which the United Kingdom has shown itself on different occasions to be cowardly, ignorant and duplicitous. It is these incidents coming together which have made me feel defensive when meeting people from neighbouring countries.
The charge of cowardice was implicit in the criticisms made on BBC television 10 days ago by the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton. He was commenting on the decision made by the British authorities suddenly to allow Orangemen to parade through the Catholic section of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Co Armagh. I found myself listening to the government of my country being told by another prime minister how, in a democracy, the rule of law must be defended. I could only agree.
Examine the excuse offered by the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Hugh Annesley: "I had to look at the implications if there was a determined thrust on the police lines. It could have led accidentally or otherwise to loss of life. I was not prepared to risk the loss of a single life for the sake of rerouting that march." Sir Hugh did not sufficiently consider the loss of life that was likely to follow from his decision to give in to pressure. I cannot help thinking, too, that if our fire services were to operate on Sir Hugh's principle, fewer people would be rescued from burning buildings. Sir Hugh put up the white flag. It is as simple as that.
Then there was the vicious blackguarding of foreigners during the recent Euro 96 football championship. At a time when there were many German visitors here we called them Krauts, we declared football war on them, we constantly referred to their Nazi past and our tabloid newspapers said that we were going to bomb them to bits. We would "Blitz Fritz". If you ask the editors why this happened, they say it was just a joke, part of our national character to poke fun at foreigners, quite harmless, amusing really, can't you see?
This attitude springs from an invincible ignorance. British is best, because we know no other and because we are unreflective and unquestioning about what we have. Can there now be a Briton who will not feel at least a bit awkward when he or she next encounters somebody from Germany?
Duplicity is the most appropriate description of an incident that punctuated the BSE crisis. We learnt that British beef-rendering companies had knowingly sold contaminated products to France, Germany, Spain and other countries such as Israel. They stepped up their exports immediately after the British government had banned the sale of meal made from cow and sheep for use in cattle feed in the United Kingdom. The rendering companies noticed a loophole in the regulations and took full advantage. Thus in 1989, when already proscribed in this country, British sales overseas of the very meat and bone meal thought to have been the original source of the BSE epidemic actually doubled.
The UK Renderers' Association said that its members "might have" exposed other countries to such feed but that "they have applied whatever legislative controls the government introduced". Our foreign customers were outraged. What could one reply to their criticisms? You can say that all is fair in love and war and in business too; that these were transactions between professionals where the rule of caveat emptor applies; that foreigners would have done it to us. Perhaps. I say it was a vile trade.
These incidents pile up in the final months of a fourth successive Tory government. The Scott report showed that a culture of encouraging British companies to exploit loopholes in trade regulations was sanctioned by our politicians. The same government has just been engaged in its own widely trumpeted "war" on Europe. Thus the Daily Mirror's football parody of Chamberlain's declaration of war had a more recent precedent than 1939. As for Sir Hugh Annesley's white flag, the possibility exists that it was hoisted to please his political masters. Come to think of it, perhaps it is my government I should be ashamed of rather than my country.Reuse content