A while ago, in response to the occasional challenge from passing nationalists, I said I’d write about a vision for the UK. I’ve found it quite difficult to knuckle down to that for a variety of reasons. Partly it’s been other things – like life – getting in the way. Partly it’s because the issue’s different for nationalists. They can come up with whatever rose-tinted view of an independent future they want. For those of us who believe in more or less maintaining the constitutional status quo we are saddled with what used to be called WYSIWYG in the early days of word processors – what you see is what you get. And partly it’s because no matter how stunning or sympathetic a vision I paint it could be no more than one man’s wish list.
An article in the excellent Financial Times Weekend Magazine on 3 October made me decide to take another approach; to set out what we should value and celebrate about the UK. Amidst all the negativity (on all sides) about politics we sometimes miss the good things.
So this is the first of an occasional series that attempts to do just that. Today’s positive story exemplifies, although not perhaps in the way he intended, Burns’ hope that
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!
The outsider can often see things we can’t. The outsider I have in mind is a man called Joaquin Villalobos. He was a commander in the left wing FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) that fought a bloody civil war in El Salvador from the late 1970s to 1992. He knew and was admired by Fidel Castro, so no bleeding heart liberal. The civil war ended after prolonged negotiations steered by the UN. Villalobos was central to the process. After peace was restored, and becoming in his own words a ‘social democrat,’ he was advised to leave the country as he might be a target for assassination from both former left wing comrades who felt betrayed by him, and right wingers who remembered his role in the civil war. To cut a long story short, he ended up living in the UK and eventually became a naturalised citizen in 2009.
What is interesting to someone like me who values the UK is the perception of it by Villalobos the outsider. His view has been formed not only by the war in El Salvador but by his subsequent extensive experience as a consultant in security and conflict resolution throughout the world. We should listen to him. Here is what he says.
‘The basic values of the UK are of the left if you compare them with the US or the majority of countries. I am thinking of the NHS of course but more significantly of the religious and political tolerance, the social atmosphere here, which you see in the way the police treat the public.’
‘I’ve been struck by the British response to the young people who are heading off to join ISIS. It’s not, in the first instance, “Let’s take reprisals” … it’s measured … That’s the realistic, rational, generous and pragmatic approach to politics and society with which I identify now.’
‘[Britain has] values of compassion, tolerance and peaceful cohabitation … there are no miracle recipes for improving a nation’s fortunes. Let’s be frank. This is a superior culture … the social cohesion and political order here have been hard won, built on a history of revolutions, suffering and world wars and these values that have emerged, built on a respect for the law, are in people’s bones.’
Says the author, John Carlin, ‘his wife tells me about the two policemen who arrived at their door one day to inform her politely that one of the back lights of their car wasn’t working; back home … such a visit would have been cause for outright panic. She mentions the kindness of a woman neighbour who picks up their post when they are away.’
Villalobos remembers a visit by his local MP, one David Cameron, to celebrate the anniversary of the local non-profit community shop, impressed that he arrived without a convoy of cars, ‘a man who has to deal with [world problems] yet he found time to come here to celebrate the anniversary of a tiny shop.’
‘I feel as if I am living in a giant garden, where people are socially integrated and politically equal … where … they have a great sense of humour. Nothing is sacred. No one takes themselves completely seriously. Contrast that with the unbearable pomposity of Latin American leaders of right and left.’
Finally, Villalobos points out that Winston Churchill is buried a few miles away from where he now lives, a grave ‘humble, no more unostentatious than any other in the little cemetery.’
If you take a partisan approach to life in the UK – left, right or nationalist – you could critique any of these thoughts negatively. But if you lift your eyes and your mind away from the minutiae of party politics and take a world view you should recognise the fundamental truths in what Villalobos says. Separation would add little if anything to his list of positives about the UK and would make all its parts prone to a number of dangers we currently avoid by staying together.
It sometimes takes the outsider to see what we forget. The first of my reasons to celebrate the UK.