Not ashamed to be British: ashamed of our leaders

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"Internationalist? Yes. Liberal? Certainly. Elite, smug or sneering? Damned if I am!"

It’s time for a public retraction. When, to my horror, the UK voted for Brexit on 23rd June, and particularly when the result was followed by some nasty examples of racism around the country, I declared myself “ashamed to be British”. As punchy sound-bites go, it wasn’t bad.

I might have gone on using it, but for the twists and turns of politics this past week. Pronouncements from the Tory Party conference this week were redolent of patronising arrogance, of peddling bigotry and of downright insult to the millions of non-British workers who keep our economy and public services afloat: so I must speak up here.

I’m proud to be British, as I always was: and I mean British, not English. But, just because I see my Britishness in an international context, because I adopt a view looks beyond my own national interest and value a warm relationship with our European neighbours as vital, I’m damned if I’ll be denigrated by an unelected Prime Minister who weaves from a single-issue vote a fantasy mandate for her own, quite unrelated vision.

I’m an educated senior professional, a Remain voter with a penchant for trying to understand, and enjoy warm relationships with, other peoples and cultures, for seeing my nation’s distinctive characteristics and pride as part of something bigger. As a result, I’m now branded as part of the “smug liberal elite”.

Moreover, the PM accused people like me of sneering in turn at the patriotism of “ordinary hard-working people”: which implies that I am neither hard-working nor ordinary.

I can’t get my head round this. I reckon I work pretty hard: but maybe I need to take instruction in “ordinariness”. Certainly I don’t believe my job is put at risk by immigrant workers, nor my income suppressed by the low wages that some unskilled immigrants will accept. But then, that was never true: the suggestion was a deliberate distortion, a piece of shameless pandering to popular prejudice of which Mrs May should be ashamed. The BBC’s online Reality Check quickly exposed that deceit – oh, unless (I suppose) you’re one of those diehard Tories convinced that the BBC is populated entirely by dangerous Leftie, er, liberals, in which case you won’t believe that either.

It’s not just our new PM, nor the toadies who surround her: all our leaders and representatives are letting us down at present. That’s why I’m ashamed of Britain’s leaders, and particularly of the impression they’re wilfully creating of us abroad.

When two UKIP MEPs decided to squabble and allegedly brawl, they couldn’t do it somewhere quietly in the UK: instead they made a spectacle of themselves in Brussels, the place where Nigel Farage and his followers have done everything they can to render our nation obnoxious, hostile and sour in European eyes.

In response to reports of that episode, my fellow Voice of the North blogger (and Brexiteer to the core) Keith Hann, commented on Twitter:

“I voted Leave to take us back to the 1950s, not the 1930s. Or the Stone Age, for that matter”.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is in such disarray that May’s bizarre vision for the future has been able to lurch powerfully to the right while simultaneously adopting a Leftist-style insistence on state intervention. She’ll interfere with the way businesses are run and their boards constituted, how energy providers charge and all the rest. Many of us might have expected her to seize the centre ground while Labour has left it: but why should she grab only that? She can have the whole football pitch, because there’s no one to provide any opposition.

While she enjoys this almost unbridled power, across Europe disgust is rising at her regime’s public utterances. Mario Giro, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister, described the Tories as “taking on those tones that we see in Eastern Europe”, by which he means the harsh nationalist tones that until recently this country too has deplored. “This is not the UK that we have always known,” he said. Nor have I: or did I miss something?

Spanish newspapers were more outspoken. El Pais headlined, “May shoots herself in the foot”, while El Mundo described her “labour market xenophobia”.

We should be alarmed to see our country, long famed abroad as the Cradle of Democracy, perceived as deriding and denouncing the foreign workers who keep us afloat. Home Secretary Amber Rudd was so out of order that she was obliged to row back from her suggestion that all firms should have to list their foreign employees: a spokesman claimed that it was merely a proposal for a “nudge” policy out for consultation, about as convincing a denial as that of an arsonist caught holding matches and a can of petrol.

I think I’m most offended by the PM’s scorn for “internationalists” (her word) who, she claims, deny their country and their patriotism. I’d like here to declare myself an internationalist. After all, more than a decade ago, with a Swedish headteacher, I wrote a book for the Council of Europe’s Education for Democracy project (a vital initiative after the collapse of Communism left former Soviet Bloc countries with no experience or tradition of democracy). I think the book was translated into 14 languages.

Does that damn me in Theresa May’s eyes? If so, we must also consign to the dustbin of history Barack Obama’s 2008 Berlin speech: “Tonight I speak to you … as a citizen … a fellow citizen of the world”. Not in the UK, mate. Besides, you’re a foreigner, so what do you know? Hold on, are you on my list?

What about the views of the young? One of my nephews, currently following a course in investigative journalism, was particularly incensed by May’s comments, Tweeting:

Rather be a #citizenoftheworld than join this pull-up-the-drawbridge comin-over-ere tired-of-experts orgy of wrinkly smug satisfaction”.

Maybe I am wrinkly nowadays: but I don’t sign up to any of those other traits, attitudes shared by those buffoons who leapt to their feet to afford Mrs May endless standing ovations at the Tory conference.

Back off, Prime Minister! I reject your ignorant polemical denunciation of people like me who believe above all in amity and compassion, qualities that you’ve chosen this week utterly to deny.

I’m proud to be British, as I always was. Unlike you, I don’t confuse patriotism with jingoism, loyalty to my country with xenophobia, concern over jobs and wages with intolerance.

I am ashamed, deeply ashamed of Britain’s leaders: but not of my country.

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