Tuesday, 8 March 2011

This Country Can Be Ugly, But Isn't It Beautiful

I was sat on a train for a few hours on Monday, travelling through East Anglia and the Midlands, between Norwich and Leicester and a thought occurred to me, a thought that brought a genuine smile to my face, one free from self-consciousness for a wonderful yet brief moment. It was an idea that is sadly passed over in so much media coverage, an idea forgotten by so many people who live in England and ignored by so many who have turned pessimistic views and cynicism into a career choice. It's a simple concept really.

England is utterly beautiful. Granted it was an uncharacteristically sunny March day, but i couldn't escape the fact as i hurtled through the countryside, that regardless of all the things going wrong in our country there are so many things that are right, and it's about time they got some attention. I was sat reading a paper, the Independent, and was struck by the contrast between the England covered in the stories within the paper and the country i was seeing out of the window.

Now try not to dismiss this as merely the ramblings of a hopeless optimist naively ignoring the truth in much of what the Independent and the majority of the other media outlets cover. I have been as angry as most at the state of this country, at the decisions of our politicians and the attitude of our citizens. I was just abruptly more aware of all the things I take for granted.

I've often found myself presented with a conflict. Patriotism, a pride in your national identity, has become almost inseparable from some heavily negative connotations. The flag of St. George has been adopted by far right groups who embody all that i consider wrong with our country. I'd take a guess and say that of the many adjectives people could come up with, positive or negative, to describe me, patriotic is not one of them. That's simply not true, i'm hugely proud to be English, i just don't believe that pride has to be jingoistic or hate filled. I'm proud of the very multi-cultural England that David Cameron is so keen to dismiss as a failure. Too often the problems of 21st century England are laid at the feet of immigrants, so as to distract from the larger, more pressing issues (for example, Vodafone's billion pound tax write off from the coalition). Any government that can argue that there must be a cap on immigration because of the economic pressures it places upon us, while simultaneously letting one of their business friends ignore billions of pounds of corporate tax (and Vodafone are just one example, look at Barclays, Topshop etc.) really can't be trusted. The sad thing is that i can't simply level this criticism at the Coalition, Labour have proven to be just as bad.

I'm proud to know people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, proud to be from a country that across the world is seen as a beacon of democracy and freedom. That may sound cheesy and naive, but even the Home Office acknowledges that contrary to the reports of papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun, the large majority of immigrants (especially, but far from exclusively Asylum Seekers) have no in depth knowledge of the British benefit system. There's this myth perpetuated that getting into England is easy. That immigration is not controlled or monitored sufficiently. If any of the people believing this myth took the time to look into the realities of applying for a visa or work permit in the UK, read any of the related web pages (http://www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/workingintheuk/tier2/ or http://www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/workingintheuk/tier5/), or heaven forbid, actually talk to a genuine immigrant, they would realise that to get the chance to work in the UK, if you are from outside the EU at least (which let's be honest, it's the immigrants from these areas that face the most hostility) you are required to jump through a series of ever narrowing hoops.

I got a little sidetracked there, but it was an important track to take. Carrying on with my list of things i love about England, i love the passion of the people, the quality of the arts that we produce (a quality that is threatened by the Coalition's cuts, but that's another post, for another day) and the welfare services available to people. If i was forced to choose one thing, right now, which i held up above all others as an example of the things our country has got right, it would be the NHS. Even the most cursory glance at the US healthcare system makes me incredibly glad i was born this side of the Atlantic. For a country which prides itself on the concept that 'All men are created equal' they've fought tooth and claw to maintain the idea that a person's access to good quality healthcare should be dependent on the money in their wallet. In my politics lecture on American politics i learnt that it costs the average American nearly $12k to insure a family of four for just 1 year. It is that kind of figure that really makes it hit home just how lucky i am to have grown up in a country with the NHS. It's far from perfect but it is abundantly clear that we as a nation often seem to fail to appreciate just what it is that we have.

Another sidetrack, also important, deal with it. I live in Leicester, a city renowned and in some cases mocked for it's ethnic diversity, and contrary to Cameron's belief that this multi-cultural society is eroding our national identity, i consider myself almost exclusively English. I am also British, European and human, but these are all distant secondary identifications. There are only a few things that sadden me more than the fact that it feels like to be proud to be English there is some requirement or assumption that i must also be suspicious of change, borderline racist and revel in narrow minded nationalism. England is a mongrel nation, invaded time and time again, made stronger by immigrants over the last 400 years, a nation that thanks to it's incredibly questionable colonial history has links all over the world. I refuse to accept that to be proud to be English means i should distrust or openly dislike immigration. How paranoid and insecure do you have to be about your own identity to feel so intensely threatened by immigration? There needs to be serious discussions about immigration, about what levels are practical for a nation our size. But they are debates that have to be conducted based on facts rather than prejudices, debates which have to be open and honest rather than manipulated by politicians and media figures for their own ends.

The basic point of this rant is to say that the English people are inherently tolerant, that England is incredibly beautiful and that we really need to start appreciating all the great things we have, rather than letting the national discourse become so unrelentingly negative.

This was a rant inspired by a 3 hour journey across the English countryside, a rant inspired by just how happy it made me to look out over the countryside on one of the first sunny days of spring. It was an over simplistic, idealised happiness, but i realised it was one i should cherish.

So here's to a reasoned debate on immigration, an appreciation for the beauty of the English countryside, a beauty which must be preserved, and most importantly, reclaiming the idea of being patriotically English from the thugs, fascists, bigots and scum that give our incredible, diverse and fascinating nation a bad name.

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