Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Being British about it

I never knew the empire, but my grandfather did and having been a child in the First World War, served a brace of His Britannic Majesties before, during and after the Second great unpleasantness. Because of the efforts of his generation I grew up English; I remember being curious that my nationality was called 'British' and I was taught and understood who the other British peoples were, but I was and will remain an English man. It was and still ought to be something to be proud of. Of course, some of the less noble excesses of the British global adventure were known about, but we glossed over that and we knew, innately, that we were indeed a special breed.

One of the features of my very early years was the succession of countries being granted, or claiming their independence from British protection, while yet wishing to remain a part of the recently founded Commonwealth of Nations. Today, I suspect the citizens of some of these countries act and feel more British than we are allowed to do. Because, as I was growing into adolescence and then into adulthood, something peculiar was happening. My first stirring of political interest came when Ted heath appeared to give away our sovereignty even as he assured us he was doing no such thing.

Two years later I watched in some dismay as the 1975 Project Fear won the referendum on staying in The Common Market. The promise of holding that national referendum – the first in British history – was in no small part the reason a Labour government got into power the year before. Save British workers, save British independence, save everything British was the rallying cry. Were there riots? Were there underhand attempts to frustrate the outcome? No. We were assured we would remain every bit as British as we had always been, but we would be stronger, more prosperous as a result of joining hands with our European partners.

Well, we did get prosperous, but how much was a direct result of European partnership may never be known; the whole of the western world became wealthier as we paid down the war debts and looked to the future. But we didn’t stay British, not in the way that used to be recognisable the world over. New generations who had never known a world outside what became the EU were told of our abhorrent past; of how we only did harm wherever our expeditionary forces set foot. Newer generations still were told how it was the EU which had saved us from further conflicts. The latest generations have no notion of the Britishness I grew up with.

No wonder we can’t have a level conversation about Brexit. Those who have never known independence are understandably nervous about the future, but instead of facing up to that future they think they are staring into a black hole. What happened to cheerful Tommy Atkins? What happened to the phlegmatic, ‘mustn’t grumble’ attitude of the generations for whom making do and carrying on was Britishness to the core? We played the cards we were dealt; we didn’t demand the croupier deal again.

Which brings us to now. Had the 1975 generation any notion of where we would end up they would have voted to leave. Nobody voted for an emasculated and dependent nation, in thrall to foreign masters; nobody in the general electorate had any vision of us becoming a European administrative region. So, for me, you can forget all the economic talk – history has proved that no one knows what lies ahead – the most important part of Theresa May’s speech yesterday was about coming together, regaining our confidence and forging ahead as a proud, self-governing people.

Coffee? Are you some sort of fifth columnist?

If that means facing tough times, so be it; it likely won’t. But if the sore, tremble-lipped losers continue to do their damnedest to weep crocodile tears over spilled milk, it will take so much longer to achieve. Self-fulfilling doom prophecies are no help at all – I’m talking to Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Emily Thornberry, Anna Soubry; the list goes on – the PM has spoken and the project is underway. Project Hope, Project Forward, call it what you like; we are where we are, for better or for worse and the only grown-up thing to do now is roll up our sleeves and crack on. Be British about it.

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