Jemima Lewis: Why can't the British be more like the Poles?

The most unusual aspect of their invasion is that it has aroused as much self-loathing as it has loathing

Saturday 27 October 2007 00:00 BST

It is perhaps for the best that Aleksander Kucharski has gone back to his native Poland, since he can't have made himself very popular in Newcastle. The 16-year-old schoolboy moved to England two years ago with his parents, who are both doctors, and – excited at the prospect of an old-fashioned English education – enrolled at St Thomas More's, a Roman Catholic state school which boasts one of the best academic records in the country.

But Aleksander wasn't impressed. "I was treading water within the English system," he said this week, displaying a precocious gravitas that, in an English teenager, could only signal terminal spoddiness. "The boys were childish. They didn't read newspapers and weren't interested in anything. And the girls only talked about shopping and what they were going to do on Friday night."

Matters were even more discouraging in the classroom. "In Poland, I only ever got average marks," claims Aleksander, "yet in the UK teachers said I was a genius. After a year I was top of the class in everything, and that includes English." The teaching methods were, he says, embarrassingly childish. "They would give me a list of definitions. The teacher told us to put them into pairs and colour them the right colour – like at primary school. In Poland you have to know the names of all countries, even the rivers. But in England hardly anyone could place Kenya or Poland on the map. The teachers didn't test knowledge, only effort."

In desperation, Aleksander has now returned to his home town of Lodz to live with his grandmother and enjoy a proper education at the local state school. He looks back on his underachieving, flabby-minded English classmates with pity, musing: "Maybe it's because they get everything on a plate, because there was no communism there and there's no real poverty, so they don't need to worry about their future."

It may be hard to hear such home truths from a boy who has yet to sprout bum-fluff – and a Johnny Foreigner at that – but Aleksander's diagnosis is one increasingly shared by the indigenous British. One of the most unusual aspects of the Polish invasion, compared with previous waves of immigration, is that so far it has inspired at least as much self-loathing as it has loathing.

The Poles, it is universally agreed, are a Godsend: reliable, diligent, uncomplaining and (whisper it) cheap. They have rescued the British economy from a native workforce too torpid and spoilt to appreciate the nobility of hard work. Indeed, their only drawback is that they cast such an unflattering light on the host nation.

"Why can't the British be more like the Poles?" goes the Professor Higgins-ish cry, and the answer always seems to be that supplied by Aleksander: we have not suffered enough. They were raised under the iron fist of totalitarianism; we were pampered by the nanny state. They have experienced real poverty; ours is only ever relative. They appreciate freedom and opportunity, having once been starved of it; we take our blessings for granted, having never known anything else.

Just as some men of my father's generation suffer from Second World War envy – the nagging suspicion that your manhood is unproven until it has been tested in global combat – so younger Britons are increasingly afflicted by communism envy. Say what you like about those murderous totalitarian regimes, but they must have done something right in order to produce such a master race of dentists, plumbers, schoolboy swots and dependable builders.

Strangely, however, this logic does not seem to apply to all the ex-communist peoples. My driving instructor – beneath whose African skin beats the heart of a British Blackshirt – will grudgingly concede that the Poles are less of a plague upon this sceptred isle than most immigrants. But, like many up-to-the-minute racists, he has no time for Slovakians, let alone Romanians ("You want to watch your wallet around that lot," he told me last week, nodding at two angelic-looking girls in peasant headscarves, waiting to cross the road. "They're ruthless.")

The Poles have the advantage of familiarity: they are the Eastern Europeans that we feel we know best. We went to war (ostensibly) on their behalf; their pilots fought alongside ours in the Battle of Britain; tales of their brave resistance filtered into our national consciousness. "The English think of us as whiteys," as a Polish friend explained it to me, "and the rest of Eastern Europe as swarthy and foreign."

Communism envy provides an easy salve for our wounded national pride: it's not our fault that we're turning into a nation of lazy, sub-literate, feral mouth-breathers – it's the hand of history wot done it. But there are plenty of countries that have managed to sustain both democracy and a work ethic. Sweden – one of the few European countries apart from Britain to survive the 20th century without being subjected to invasion or tyranny – has an education system to satisfy even Aleksander Kucharski.

The idea that you cannot be free and prosperous without sacrificing your soul is a council of despair – and an abdication of responsibility. If we British are not happy with ourselves, we should work out what we're doing wrong and fix it. That's the real lesson to be learnt from those hard-working Poles.

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