Last Saturday, when Boris Johnson declared that he would campaign for Great Britain to leave the EU, he said that he wanted to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain and that we needed to ‘take back control’ of our lives. These are obviously populist remarks and play into the deep, emotional longings of many people. For that reason they are worth examining.
My parents era (born circa 1920s and 30s) were brought up with the idea that Britain was a great force for good in the world. Our colonial history was something to be proud of. We had brought civilisation to so many areas of the world. Our education, our science and engineering, our laws and our institutions and, most of all, our values were a beacon of hope in a dark world. These days we don’t see these things. Instead we tell a story of oppression and corruption. Warren Hastings is seen as leading a systematic extortion of India. Our treatment of indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand was cruel in the extreme. Our role in the slave trade was diabolical. The list goes on, but there is no doubt that those of us born in the 50s and later find it hard to tell the old story of our history today. This shift in narrative has been very painful for the older generation, but it has made us more humble participants in the world. We find it easier to draw alongside other nations that have their own histories, where Britain is not centre stage, or not loved. There is something exclusive about ‘greatness’, which is why it is no coincidence that those who want to put the ‘great’ back into Great Britain also want to leave the EU. So, I guess, one of the dynamics of the upcoming referendum will be about what story we tell about ourselves as a nation, and what story we tell of others.
Underneath and determining the outcome of this storytelling process are our systems of belief, values and commitments. The idealistic view of Britain’s past is surely a form of myth-making, close to a religious belief. That is why such people love to sing ‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s pleasant land… and ‘I vow to thee my country… and other such hymns. These hymns stir the soul, inspire the passions, rekindle the devotion. Meanwhile others of more recent birth have an empathic sensitivity forged in a quite different furnace. They agonise for the slaves, the impoverished and the exterminated. Their passion is no less. Their belief is no less idealistic. And the test of civilisation is probably whether we can hear the voice of the other and reach a greater truth that neither side on their own can provide.
Here is an extract from my forthcoming book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ that makes this point.
Human beings negotiate their deepest commitments through story. Every society needs to examine the quality of its storytelling. A good story challenges us to our heart. It opens up new ways of seeing the world. It shapes our politics, our faith and our life. It can topple the most entrenched bigot. It can release fountains of joy. There is no one right story. There are always many ways a story can be told, but each, like the stroke of an artist’s brush, provides a new colour to the world.
I hope to cover the ‘take back control’ idea in a future post.