Full pomp and little glory. That’s how millions of Britons felt about President Xi’s splendiferous state visit. In one official picture taken at the palace banquet the Duchess of Cambridge, bedecked in diamonds, looks as if she is a captive on display; the Queen scowls, a lackey appears stiff and nervous and Xi smiles tightly and only with his lips. Our political leaders exhort us to be unthinkingly patriotic and proudly British.
Yes, we can do pageantry and ceremony better than most other nations: Royals, golden coaches and mounted parades. Is that it? Is it enough?
Not for three make-up artists at a television station I visited this week. I have met them before and they seemed apolitical, loyal royalists, happy enough with the way things are. This week something changed. It was a rude awakening. One of the women simply said: ‘I feel quite ashamed actually, now, of being British.”
“Why?” I asked. For her it was that, in a time of austerity, so much money was being lavished on “a Chinese ruler”. Others felt that Britain had bent, sunk too low, given too much away to a “foreign country”. Beneath the anti-foreign sentiments, I sense a river of anxiety that “Great Britain” is now just a name hanging on ragged myths and political fabrications. The powerful can’t hide truths from the people as they once could. Millions may be disconnected from big issues, policies and matters of the state but they feel all is not well in this once-blessed land.
The nation of shopkeepers is selling off too many of its shops. The US tops the league of foreign owners of companies based in the UK. Some EU countries have a strong business presence and now oil-rich Arab nations, China and India are coming in fast. Furthermore, British industry is losing out to foreign competition. Our steel industry is the latest casualty; thousands of jobs are being shed, causing untold distress. Globalisation respects no borders or human need – it is a monstrously powerful force that brings both benefits and destruction to communities, countries and continents. The latest batch of commercial agreements with China are part of that worldwide economic model, the only one there is. Unless the rich and poor nations get together to rethink the system, they all have to play along and get the best deals.
That doesn’t mean Britain has to bury its honour and principles nor betray its good name and history. Under this Government, British values seemingly boil down to economic whoredom, monetary privilege and the bottom line. We could have done business with China without putting on the embarrassing show we have just witnessed. Cameron’s erstwhile trusted advisor Steve Hilton was appalled by the kowtowing.
More disturbing to me was how Xi’s visit was used to showcase the Tories’ own contempt for human rights and international law. Our police arrested Shao Jiang, a Chinese refugee and survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was quietly protesting outside Mansion House, while inside the establishment was sucking up in style to President Xi. Police raided his home and took away his computer.
In the past fortnight, new laws have withdrawn fundamental liberties from Muslims, young and old. We are no longer to think or speak freely. The right to demonstrate, along with safeguards to protect freedom of speech and citizenship activism, are all passing into the dark night.
To the governing clique, fundamental rights are passé and prissy. The ministerial code on standards and practices has just been rewritten. Ministers need not bother themselves about international law or human rights when making decisions or nurturing diplomatic relationships. And so they are intensely relaxed when the College of Policing gets a lucrative contract to train the Saudi Arabian police (on how to lash, behead and hang more efficiently?). Maybe some Britons take pride in this repressive new Britain; most do not.
Britain’s greatness was affirmed not only by wars but peace-time nation building programmes, among them the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. Within five years, little will be left of the founding ideals, policies or structures based on the pillars of equality and access. The poor are once again a blot on the landscape to be despised and punished.
Osborne and Cameron push through tax-credit cuts because the victims don’t matter. They are barely human. Migrants and refugees, too, are dehumanised and bestialised. The Government is failing the young, declares David Willetts, a serious Tory thinker: “We are reshaping the state and storing problems for the future by creating a country for older generations. The social contract is a contract between generations and in Britain it is being broken.” If this carries on, there really will be no such thing as society. Does this official debasement of people and institutions make you proud to be British?
I am not trying to do my nation down. As the years go by, my love of Great Britain strengthens. London is the most vibrant city in the world, our natural and cultural habitats are flourishing in spite of cuts. Historian Dominic Sandbrook has just published The Great British Dream Factory, a quirky book that celebrates the ballsy nation which gives the world innovative television, gifted writers, musicians, pop singers and irrepressible doers. Last week I spoke at an event to celebrate Octavia Hill, the Victorian philanthropist who created good dwellings for the poor and got them to strive for “noble lives”. We still have many such irrepressible, optimistic Britons.
But the nation has lost its soul and principles. Adele and events to mark Agincourt may divert us but the sense of loss and shame will soon return. GB was once better than this. It may never be again.
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