Through inspiring engagement with community and country, we can inspire a feeling of civic duty and pride within young people, fostering a greater sense of friendship and trust across Britain
2011 was a momentous year for Britain.
On 29th April, the eyes of the world turned to London, as millions of people flocked to Pall Mall, bursting into cheers and hollers as Prince William and his blushing bride posed for that infamous kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in a moment that stretched to eternity.
On 20th October, British forces overseas stood in the shadows as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi met his final date with history, vindicating the courage of the British Prime Minister to call for a No Fly Zone over Libya and hailing a new dawn for a war-torn nation.
As the year drew to a close, while Greece and Italy stared boldly into the economic abyss, the British economy maintained the confidence of the world; and despite measures of austerity which will bring great hardships, we began muddling through with resilience and strength.
And, all the while, thousands of organisers, performers and international athletes and sport stars have been preparing to bring the greatest sporting event the world over to London, the Olympics, in a spectacle that will never be matched in our lifetimes.
And yet, does any of this make us proud to be British? The Telegraph reported that England is the least patriotic nation in Europe, but is it true? Do we feel inspired by our country or do we brush off the successes of our nation as if they were just part of someone else’s day?
“It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.” So George Orwell wrote.
It’s a peculiarity to the British that we have become the post-patriotic nation. We have so much to be proud of and yet we hide our pride. We love the fight but forget the victory.
We look at people who are patriotic as soppy or corny or, worse, downright suspicious. We secretly love our country – its tolerance, its compassion, its history, its humour – but we’re too ashamed to admit it.
Patriotism has become a dirty word, the preserve of the hard right, and we would probably reclaim it, but we fear it might offend.
This ambivalent culture wasn’t an accident. It began with the best of intentions. It was spawned out of a belief that Britain should be a culturally blank canvass; that patriotism is the old fashioned trapping of the Empire and that if we reject a national identity, we will remake the country anew with new cultures living side by side in unity.
And yet, the irony is that national identity – the belief that out of many, we are one – is what unifies us.
The wonderful truth is that although we are a country of all religions, cultures and hues, we are one people and we are one nation, and every citizen is welcome to be part of the Great British story.
The unwavering belief that it doesn’t matter whether you can trace your ancestry back to the times of Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare or whether, like mine, your forefathers travelled over oceans and continents to reach these shores. If you love Great Britain and cherish its values, then you are British and have every ounce as much of a stake in this nation as any other.
The unswerving conviction that in this country, of all countries, you can celebrate your distinct family history and heritage and we’ll celebrate with you but that your role in society matters, that your contribution matters, that you matter.
In America, people feel proud of their country and believe themselves to be truly American – whether they are Italian-American, African-American, Latino-American or other. They know, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, that no matter what people’s differences, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment.” That a nation’s hopes and dreams are bound together; that more than cultural differences, we share a common humanity.
My great grandparents were Jewish immigrants who voyaged over land and sea from Russia and Poland to reach these shores in the midst of the October Revolution, to make a home and a life for their family here in England; and the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that they were shown is nothing short of a miracle. That is the example that Britain has set overseas, that is our gift to the world.
So let us now turn the tide on this culture of indifference and inspire the next generation with the simple message that Britain doesn’t belong to one party or faction; that we are a diverse nation, a modern nation, and we all have our role to play in the writing of the next great chapter in British history.
Let us teach the next generation that in these difficult times, we will not tear each other apart in sixty million voices, or lose our commitment to all we cherish – tolerance, cohesion, understanding – but that we will instead raise each other up as one nation; that we will celebrate our differences as well as the ties that bind; that we will not engage in the politics of fear, but inspire our nation with the politics of hope.
Of course, there are those who will say that at a time when the young are struggling to find employment and families are struggling to make ends meet, this is not the time to hold this conversation. This is precisely the right time to have this conversation. For the hardships of modern times are not only a test of our government, but a test of our character.
An edited version of this article was published on The Commentator