I wouldn’t want to rush anybody here, but 70 years after VE Day, is it time to jettison a defining belief from the national psyche and accept that Britain is a far less civilised country than Germany?
For readers of a certain age, this is not a comfortable proposition. Almost everyone over 45 grew up with blood relatives who suffered at the hands of the Hun, in a society where hating Germany was less acceptable than obligatory. Germanophobia had various expressions, from Basil Fawlty’s faux parodic ravings to Mrs Thatcher’s paranoid warning about the danger of German reunification. But whatever its form, it was predicated on the same belief: where the Germans were always murderous brutes (see the Roman historians for accounts of their barbarism), the British have been paradigms of tolerance and humanity.
This was understandable. No war in history was as plainly Manichean as the one against the Nazis, and its aftermath was a wicked travesty of international natural justice. A decade after it ended, Britain had barely stopped rationing bread, and booming Germany was establishing itself as the continent’s industrial powerhouse. Who wouldn’t be resentful about that?
Ever since, we English (this brand of complacency being a peculiarly English trait) have comforted ourselves that, while they may be richer and more successful, in football as in much else, the one thing they cannot touch is our timelessly unshakeable moral superiority.
And so to Monday’s announcement in Berlin that Germany will not deport any Syrian migrants. It has suspended the Dublin Protocol of 1990, which insists that migrants seek asylum in the first EU country they enter, to which they may be deported by any other they subsequently reach. Britain, needless to add, has done no such thing.
While Angela Merkel responds to anti-migrant protests by challenging the nastier instincts of her electorate, David Cameron yields to his. Where she opens her doors to this pitiable influx, he promises to deport more pour décourager les autres, memorably referring to north African refugees congregating in Calais as “a swarm”. Germany anticipates handling 750,000 asylum applications this year. Britain, according to its Prime Minister, is sulkily prepared to take “a few hundred more” Syrians.
That may not make Cameron a silkier Katie Hopkins, but it does raise questions about the faith about which he recently claimed to be “evangelical”. In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. “Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. “They live it out.”
As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by “loving they neighbour as thyself”. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.
And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that “thy neighbour” actually meant “everyone else”; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Blessed are the merciful”, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.
In 40 years of obsessively following British politics, little has been more consistently disgusting than the abuse of Christ’s message. Margaret Thatcher pointed out that the Good Samaritan couldn’t have paid for the stricken wayfarer’s hotel room if he hadn’t made a few bob. David Cameron might adapt that scriptural analysis to claim that the Samaritan rigorously checked the man’s travel documents before shelling out for the minibar.
It’s always fun to fantasise about a moment from idealised political drama like The West Wing when a leader surrenders to the better angels of his nature. In Cameron’s case, this might mean granting the Franco-German request to take our share of migrants; and stating that, as the father of a beloved disabled son, he can no longer turn a blind eye to Iain Duncan Smith’s victimisation of the disabled. In Germany, where disabled benefits are copious and generous, callousness of the kind unveiled this week in the serpent name of tough love would be unthinkable.
But you get the politicians you deserve. Cameron isn’t moulding the public opinion that the truly tragic aspect to this humanitarian catastrophe is the inconvenience endured by British motorists delayed in Calais, or that hundreds of thousands are feigning disability to enjoy lives of gracious ease on £55.10 a week. He is meekly reflecting it. And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit another five years in a country house in Bucks.
“All asylum seekers deserve dignity and respect,” said a Merkel spokesman on Monday. If that strikes you as a childishly simple statement of fact, can you imagine it coming from a member of this government? Not that callousness on this scale is a Conservative monopoly. The last Labour government locked up the children of asylum seekers. In one touching vignette, a vicar in a Santa Claus suit who turned up at the gates of a camp with a sack of presents was tearfully turned away. If this is a Christian country, you wouldn’t fancy living in a heathen one.
As always in Britain, the immovably smug sense of moral superiority born of winning the war insulates us against any piercing self-awareness that would force us to ask how we became like this. But something terrible has happened to a country that demands disdain for unspeakable human suffering from those it elects, and finds itself needing to look to Germany for a basic lesson in compassion.
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