If a nation’s identity is formed by its history, at least in part, then Britain at present appears to be forming a new identity in contravention of hers. I can scarcely believe what I see happening over the water in my country of birth these days: Tories wetting themselves over an ‘invasion’ of poor refugees in rubber boats on the Kent coast – or is that only Farage? please dear God let it be so – and a Government coming very close to a kind of Fascism in what it plans and what it has already done. Of course all these trends have precedents in earlier periods of British history, but they were never dominant, and never part of the ‘progressive’ narrative which I always liked to believe defined us more.
My new book of essays, Britain Before Brexit, due out I think early next year, bears on this; with its main theme – if there is one, in a very disparate collection – being the way that Britain’s and the European Union’s identities have changed, and indeed very largely reversed, over the past fifty years. From being the most generous European country to refugees and immigrants in the 19th century, we have become the meanest; from the most open we have become the most surveilled; from the most democratic, one of the least so; from a country where ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’, a sink of public deceit and corruption; and from the country with the free-est press in Europe, to one now ranked near the bottom of the scale. History no longer counts for anything in our view of ourselves.
By ‘we’ of course I’m referring to my British half. We Swedes are just as appalled.