How does the world see Britain—and how does it see itself? Prospect editor Tom Clark introduces our November issueby Tom Clark / October 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
From Xi Jinping’s China to Donald Trump’s American heartland, today’s world demonstrates the might of the nation as a mobilising force. It has induced people to sacrifice and to slaughter for centuries, and so we should not be so surprised to see it reasserting itself, and post-Cold War fantasies of a liberal, post-border planet fade. If attachment to nation cannot be wished away, how can it be moderated and managed for the common good?
The perils of unthinking nationalism are a thing of terror, as the radioactive brinkmanship between puffed-up patriots in Washington and Pyongyang demonstrate (see Jeffrey Lewis, p28). Even in western Europe, the clash between exclusionary nationalisms in Madrid and Barcelona (Liam Aldous) has in recent weeks poured onto the streets. But the question remains as to whether solidarity and shared pride which were, for example, important in the founding of the Beveridge welfare state (Nicholas Timmins)—with its National Insurance, National Assistance and National Health Service—can again be applied to good purpose. Reflecting creatively on what your country is all about, as the new Palestinian museum is attempting to do in the exceptionally difficult circumstances of the occupied West Bank (Daniella Peled), is surely worthwhile.
Nations are, after all, defined by the stories they tell about themselves—Greece looks in the mirror and sees the first civilisation, France the nation of reason, Australia the lucky country. Brexit Britain is overdue some self-scrutiny. The Australian historian Stuart Ward turned up in the UK at the millennium, and judged it had finally shrugged off its imperial pretensions. Seventeen years on, he flips that sanguine verdict on its head, and fears the delusions of grandeur, even some of the language of empire, have returned to cloud our collective judgment. The Dutch journalist, Joris Luyendijk, reveals how he left Britain after six years, despairing at a culture he found pathologically uninterested in other points of view.
These are difficult messages from foreign friends, but we need not sink into self-hatred. Britain does have things going for it, including a remarkably adaptable constitution (Adam Tomkins) which allows us to argue about who we are more peacefully than many. And, as you’re reminded on being introduced to Armando Iannucci, we also have a talent for ribbing ourselves about our own absurdities. It’s going to be more important than ever.