I have always been an admirer of Britain and all things British – football and food being the only notable exceptions. In my eyes, Britain has always been this small, tenacious island, which throughout history punched way above its size, spurned by the values of duty and hard-work. Occasionally, it even took some time off to laugh at itself, as Monty Python and Black Adder attest. In short, I have always seen the British as sort of ‘more fun than the Germans’ and ‘less stuck-up than the French’.
Surely, the fact that I come from Malta has something to do with that admiration. It’s not that Britain did not use Malta for its own benefits, as it did with any other parcel in its empire. It’s just that there was never any bad blood, and the Maltese, rightly or wrongly, have often looked towards Britain as an example of efficiency, propriety and gentlemanliness. We even use the phrase being “on English time” for somebody who’s always punctual.
Now, sadly, my admiration is gone. Not having lived in Britain since 1998, mine is admittedly the view of an outsider. But for a country which once ruled a sizeable chunk of the world and which still holds international aspirations, outside views should matter
In many ways, “Great Britain” has always been this romantic inspiration rather than a real place – a sort of Camelot. But the values it stood for (and fought for in two world wars) were real. Today, as the dust settles on the UK EU-referendum, I am deeply saddened to see how small that ‘Great Britain’ has become. And it has become small, first of all, in the mind of its own people.
The UK might still be one of the foremost economies in the world but it has become a small place: an insecure, spoiled, little country, closed-in on itself and afraid of anything foreign. It appears to have lost its courage, and worse, its core values. Even more tragically, it seems to have lost all notions of what true ‘greatness’ really is. Over half a century ago, Britain awarded my little country the George Cross ‘for bravery and gallantry’. Today, Britain itself, would be undeserving of the same title.
This has been long coming. British companies, whose sense of fairness and loyalty once made it a pleasure to do business with, have long embraced the worst of American capitalist attitudes, as money trumped values. Meanwhile, the image of travelling Britons has become more associated with drunken chavs and rampant hooligans than with white-clad gentlemen walking with a cane. But the recent UK referendum has somehow brought all this dissipation to a head; or rather exposed it to the rest of the world.
It is, of course, not the actual outcome of the UK-EU referendum which has done that, as shocking as the results might be. It is the actual run-up to it and the quality of the debate which were the most damning; not to mention the very fact that Britain felt the need to hold this referendum in the first place.
Of lies and politics
Coming from a minute country, I am used to parochialisms in politics. Countless times I have watched enviously, the witty debates in Commons, wishing our own national politicians were slightly more couth and statesman-like. What I never expected was to see that provincialism blown up on a national scale, and of all places, in the UK.
With the UK-EU referendum, the British political class has let down its country and its citizens on a grand scale. It failed to lead a mature and sensible debate and instead resorted to blatant lies and petty sensationalism in a bid to garner hollow votes. It had no plan for what comes after. The lies spread during the weeks of campaigning have been preposterous. In the context of a general election one might have even be excused for promising the moon, knowing that the electorate will have another go in a few years. However, with a decision of such magnitude on the balance, these lies verge on the criminal and speak volumes about the politicians who either uttered them or did nothing to correct them.
The referendum itself was a populist move and a cheap trick from Mr. Cameron to keep his leadership of the Conservative party. In the end he painted himself into a corner and the whole thing turned into a mud-fight during which Boris and Michael wrestled David, Nigel stirred the crowds and Jeremy sodded-off for a drink someplace else. It would have been laughable were it not the final drop that caused the simmering cauldron of fear and insecurity to overflow. Current British politicians, in all their crassness and single-mindedness, simply preferred to burst the pustule and risk an infection rather than lead with a scalpel.
Indeed, if anything, the biggest crisis in the UK is currently a political one. Both major parties are imploding and there is no real alternative – which leaves space for far-right politicians to do their dance.
If I had to be positive I would hope for the UK-EU referendum to be a wake-up call and a moment of reckoning for the British. I would hope that, amongst the ranks of British politicians, one would be found who would be brave enough to lead and who would not be afraid to go to Brussels: not like the insecure chieftain of a nation which grudgingly shares its sovereignty, but like a statesman whose vision inflames the rest of the continent and whose country leads the way. The British need that and Europe needs that. I would also hope that Britons would realise that the days of ‘greatness’ based on standard-bearing, sabre-rattling and an outsized national superiority complex are over. Greatness, nowadays, is measured by how effective a country can pool its resources with others and drive the world forward towards a better and a safer place.
But the road will be long and fraught with dangers. Xenophobia and populism are already more evident after the referendum results and risk becoming even more so. Scenes of Britons openly bullying people from ethnic minorities (many being British themselves!) – are not only sad, but deeply unjust. I am far from being a historical apologist, but for a nation who less than a century ago invaded half the world, it is rather rich to hear words like “go back to your country!”. It just goes to shows how small British mentality has become and how insecure the British have become about their own identity.
Before Britain goes anywhere on the European and world stages, it has to deal with the great divisions that the referendum has unmasked: the young vs the old, the rich vs the poor, the cities vs the countryside, the educated vs the ignorant. And it will not be an easy task.
I just hope that this could be a unique opportunity for Britain to actually take some time off and deal with its internal issues. I have many British friends, most of them part of the large minority who voted “remain”, who still give me hope that the will and the strength are still there and that one day Britannia will come back out of its hideout, secure and determined, claiming to the world that “it couldn’t be more petrified if a wild Rhinoceros had just come home from a hard day at the swamp and found it wearing his pyjamas, smoking his cigars and in bed with his wife.” (With apologies to Black Adder!)
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Photocredit: André Corrado