Two years ago today, those of us who want to stay in union with the rest of the United Kingdom won the Scottish independence referendum. Since then nationalists have assailed me almost every day with what they claim is bad about the UK. In a small celebration, here’s some of what I love about my country.
I love the fact that I live in a democracy where the government is accountable to the people, where the rule of law prevails, and where freedom of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed. I use these words deliberately. They are the definition of ‘freedom’ used by the American Freedom House organisation. They report on freedom throughout the world every year. Here is their judgement about the UK in 2016:
Source: Freedom in the World 2016 (Click map to enlarge)
That’s 95% overall in their scoring system and in their top categories for political rights, civil liberties and freedom.
If statistics don’t do it for you, here’s the testimony of a political refugee who sought sanctuary in the UK when his life was under threat, former El Salvadorean guerrilla leader Joaquín Villalobos:
Let’s be frank. This is a superior culture … [Britain has] values of compassion, tolerance and peaceful cohabitation …
If you find his words too fulsome, read the touching interview with him in the Financial Times to see the practical examples that justify his claim.
I love the fact that Villalobos shows we’re better as a country in so many ways than we think we are. And when I look at the detail of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index I find that the UK scores better than average on almost all the 24 indicators they measure for the ‘advanced’ economies of the world:
Source: OECD Better Life Index 2016
And when I dive down into the human details that underpin the facts, I love what outsiders say about the things we cherish, for example our National Health Service still, despite devolution, delivering the same free-at-the-point-of-delivery care across the UK. Two years ago US physician Dr Jen Gunter had to visit an A & E department in London when her son needed treatment for a foreign body in his eye:
I can tell you we had great care at St. Thomas and [the ophthalmologist] was fantastic … this was as smooth as the best care we’ve had in the United States … [and] no one in the UK is left wondering what the price will be or gets an egregious bill (full text here).
She must be a glutton for punishment because she visited another A&E this year, in Sunderland with an English cousin, and had a similar positive experience:
Everyone I spoke with at the hospital loved the NHS, and honestly it showed. Dear U.K., the NHS is awesome … Thank you NHS for taking fantastic care of my cousin, of my son two years ago, and of everyone else.
Last year I also had to visit an A&E, at the Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, North Wales on a Saturday. I received the same sort of efficient service, not as far from home as Dr Gunter but knowing I would be dealt with on the same fair basis as everyone else that afternoon.
To go from life-saving to life-enhancing, I love the diversity of the UK, and its quirkiness.
I love groups of people who gather to do things that by nature they are constitutionally unsuited to do – the Men of Lonach, professionals and townies to a man, kitted out as Highlanders, processing slowly up Donside getting more tipsy as they go; massed ranks of Welsh men and women dressed as they imagine druids would have dressed in sheets solemnly watching one of their number crowned as bard; Englishmen (and – shock, horror – sometimes women) morris-dancing in costumes no farm labourer or peasant ever wore, pints of beer wisely stashed for inter-dance refreshment. I love how they all take it so seriously and how, if they see this, they will write correcting me and chiding me on my insensitivity to ancient cultural tradition. I love how I can see all this in one country and how, underneath the fancy dress, they’re all pretty much the same Brits.
I love too, the Proms and the promenaders. I love the last night when they all enjoy the classical music equivalent of a knees-up, union flags and hats everywhere, ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘Land of Hope and Glory,’ ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God save the Queen’ all belting out – even though I might change some of the words. I love it especially because nationalists completely misunderstand what it’s about. They know nothing of the season that precedes it, the serious musical intent of that season, the joyous release of the last might, the humour and even irony that accompanies the singing. I feel sorry for them when they see only what some choose to call the butcher’s apron and hear only an empire long gone. Give me the subtlety, ambiguity and power of ‘Jerusalem’ any day over the miserable dirge of ‘Flower of Scotland.’
I love the BBC, who broadcast the proms. I love it not because some separatists despise it but because it is a unique and wonderful institution that is British and is better than any other broadcaster I know. My trust in it is increased all the more because every political party criticises it equally – the Tories because they’d rather broadcasting was a commercial affair only or they think it’s full of lefties, Labour because they think it’s part of the establishment and isn’t fair to Jeremy, UKIP because it’s biased towards Europe, the SNP because it’s both too British and too balanced for them, the Lib Dems because … actually I don’t remember them criticising the BBC (corrections on that one to No Thanks! please).
I love how the BBC, and especially its World Service, is part of the UK’s ‘soft power,’ its ability to wield influence through attraction and persuasion. The Soft Power 30 ranks the UK second in the world to the USA and lists our ‘soft’ strengths, in their words:
- our state-backed assets like the World Service, Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British Council
- private assets and global brands like Burberry and British Airways
- institutions like the British Museum
- our higher education system
- our rich civil society and charitable sector, and
- the unrivalled range of our memberships in the world’s most influential organisations.
What’s not to like in that list, which the Soft Power 30 calls ‘the key components in the UK’s overall ability to contribute to the global good’?
I can hear some of you saying ‘But …’ or ‘What about …?’
I know, there are things to criticise about the UK. What country’s perfect? If you follow up some of the information I’ve summarised you’ll see there’s plenty that needs improving. But that’s the point. I want to keep what’s good and use understanding of what isn’t good to make it better.
That would also be my answer to any nationalist who challenges me to set out my vision of the UK (they do occasionally). I don’t need to. This is what it is, some of it’s wonderful, some’s not as good as it could be. They’re the ones that need the vision to justify their hypothetical separate state. And just saying we’ll be free and everything’ll be better isn’t a vision.
Finally, I love the physical diversity of the islands that make up this country and the way I can move around them unhindered by barriers or borders. It would take a thousand pictures to give even a hint of that variety. Let me leave you with three from my own travels in the two years since we said in Scotland that we wanted to stay together with the rest of the UK.
One photo is from Scotland, one England and one Wales. You can work out which might be which. And I’m sorry, Northern Ireland, I know your scenery is as beautiful but I’ve not visited you for a few years.
Whether you’re British plus English/Welsh/Northern Irish/anything else in any combination, enjoy the anniversary of the day the majority of Scots said yes, we want to stay together.
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
’Til it’s gone
– Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi