I am invited to China’s youthful-looking Premier Li Keqiang’s keynote speech in Mansion House, in London’s financial centre.
During his address, in the coded language of diplomacy, the premier is piqued, gently mocking a very British, even, English trait.
I know you Think Tanks like to deal in abstracts, he says. We (Chinese) deal with facts. Previous sentiment from the premier’s office have been less guarded.
A day later, there’s a need to reflect on this further.
Li Yang, one of my Master’s student, completes her assignment in the nick of time to be awarded a high mark, but it was the last few passages of her essay that stood out like the white cliffs of Dover.
“I always admired the English, but now I know you are shallow minded, are not interested in learning about anything, are lazy and have no interest in anyone else”.
What? Did she not see the Olympic opening and the joi de vivre spirit that prevailed? For that brief moment, I carry the weight of Englishness in determining whether I should reply to this off-piste remark, or ignore it. I did the former, not for the first time though.
Reporting from South Africa in the early 1990s before Apartheid (legalised racism) was abolished an Afrikaner Boer farmer goes Jekyll and Hyde on me. One moment we’re discussing mutis (Vodoo spells) and he finds it incredulous that there are black people in Britain. Next moment he wants to shoot me because I am English. I was responsible for the death of his grandfather in a concentration camp. The Brits had created them during the Second Boer War. My driver and I flee for our lives.
Li Yang isn’t the first student to offer a salvo. Some years earlier, a model graduate who wouldn’t say boo to a goose dropped into my office to say goodbye. She paused for a moment, apologised and then let rip too about British indifference, ignorance and exceptionalism. “You British are not special”, she ended, before apologising.
Almost every year international students buoyed by tales of England before they arrive can become somewhat crestfallen by the year’s end. Some imagined the UK through the lens of a Dickens’ novel. Quaint, pebble roads, families that would offer you a cup a tea in their best pot and then see you off with baked biscuits. The poverty on streets is a recurring theme many can’t shake.
The first steps towards correcting alcoholism is to acknowledge you are an alcoholic, according to Alcoholics Anonymous. Brits or is that English, you decide can get hammered, but which nationality doesn’t? We don’t have a monopoly on being loud and leery. But that sense of superiority remains.
Erroneous or otherwise we attach macro perceptions, characteristics to nations. Ghanaians are super friendly; Germans are strict, matter-of-fact; Italians, passionate; and Americans, lots of confidence (watch Oscar winner American Factory (2019). And the Brits?
Of course it’s not altogether fair. The Brits are generous and charitable ( Comic Relief) and humorous and kind. And then a long read sees traits encoded in history: empire; colonialism; indifference to others, even outright racism (Windrush), and wars. Are these just our ruling elite or reflect how the populace acted? But then there is beauty in sport, the beautiful game, gentlemen’s game and elegant game; Football, Rugby, and Cricket in that order. Thankfully its sportsmen exhibit humility in trying conditions against even bitter rivals.
In politics, whilst the rest of the world advocated tests and isolation during the warnings of Covid-19 outbreak Britain’s Government recommended a remarkable exceptional policy: get infected! The sooner the better.
Having derided nurses and the NHS before denying the former a minimum pay rise from their start of around £24,000 in a 2017 commons vote, they would then proclaim to the latter there is no magic money tree. So, what, now we’re clapping for them.
How forcefully you wonder, when Covid-19 is behind us, and medical staff make a request for pay-rises — a small reward for their work, might they be denied as the money tree claim returns.
The Brits/ English (you debate), possess a dissonantly unique trait, captured by Premier Li Keqiang. We’re all think tanks. We like our opinions. For a while we’ve eschewed experts, well? The Brits are prone to gaining insight into their problems, being privy to lengthy discussion for remedies, but then painfully not seeing them through.
It’s borne out in recommendations in education policy. In the row over schools in Birmingham becoming Trojan horses for Islamic extremism, Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw says he told the education secretary that if you want to conduct a fair assessment of a school it’s better not to inform the institution when you intend to visit. Michael Gove MP, apparently ignored this sensible advice.
The Metropolitan Police force have been informed by several bodies and a major enquiry they are institutionally racist. But their commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe’s television interview rejects this. “I hope not. I don’t think it’s for me to judge”, he told ITV News.
The media itself can see no wrong, even when hacking a missing girl’s phone that provided the impression she was still alive. Leveson’s recommendations for change to protect the privacy of individuals was seemingly neither helpful to press and media barons in the wake of such actions, so a conservative government canned it. And Windrush? What an indictment! A hostile environment against Brits.
In all the last three cases, education, law and order, and media, symptoms of the alcoholic disease is evident, denial of a real problem. For the period these events become newsworthy, they are discussed with the intensity of a grandmaster Chess player’s crunch match. Then forgotten.
However, if there ever was a time, a window, room to shake an image, to reset, to show a new direction, it’s possibly now as we review ourselves. The earth has metaphorically come to a standstill. Whatever we’ve been doing, this period offers an opportunity to change. This is it. That moment where people clapped for carers was an example of solidarity, of selflessness and that you and your neighbour could find common ground — empathy.
National fervour should be separated from this trenchant mode to think, and tank because Brits know better. But realistically can you see cooperation and collaborating lasting? If not consider this thought. Three of the more recent deadliest virus’s: SARS, Ebola, MERS and Corona have become increasingly more virulent at what they do. If we trend extrapolate the question is how soon before nature in the shape of a super virus secures its ultimate goal — seconds, not days?
Of course perceptions can be wrong, but in what Yuri Noah calls accelerated history, we’ve a chance at change in a contracted time, because, well these are not normal times. And that’s something that doesn’t require isolated thinking.