Why would anyone still love Britain?
Britain feels like a Christmas gift in August. In the debate over Scottish independence, it has been either ignored or mocked. For the 'Yes' camp, it's an archaic remnant of an oppressive relationship. For 'No', it's the great unmentionable, a baffling construction they seem to neither understand nor believe in. Britain is unloved and uninteresting.
The English are, if anything, even more critical of it than the Scottish. For the left it is an imperialist vehicle, a reminder of a shameful history. For the right it is a permanent disappointment, typified by the damn-it-all anger of Ukip voters. It is rare to find a right-winger with anything positive to say about their country.
For the rest of us, it is unseemly. It's just not done to talk proudly about one's country. It's unBritish. Years of superiority and slaughter overseas have made us averse to banging our own drum.
But there are things about Britain which are worth celebrating. They are not values like 'fair play' or 'supporting the underdog', which politicians like to hark on about. No country on earth values cheating.
Our qualities are not in any way specific to us. But all countries have a specific mixture of attributes, in certain quantities, and that is what makes them unique, in the same way people are unique.
It's hard to trace the origin of the British love of irony. It's hard to even see it at all sometimes. It is so pervasive one sometimes forgets it is happening. A friend from overseas once told me, after a few years living here: "I think I get it. Everyone is always saying the opposite of what they mean, right?"
Where did this instinctive irony come from? Perhaps Brits are so afraid of saying what they mean they have to coat everything in a nonsense reversal to make it palatable. Or perhaps it is part of that other great British trait: the refusal to take anything seriously.
Michel Houellebecq wrote this of the English, but it is equally applicable to all of Britain:
"People often say that the English are very cold fish, very reserved, that they have a way of looking at things – even tragedy – with a sense of irony. There's some truth in it; it’s pretty stupid of them, though. Humour won't save you; it doesn’t really do anything at all. You can look at life ironically for years, maybe decades; there are people who seem to go through most of their lives seeing the funny side, but in the end, life always breaks your heart."
It's a very French thing to write, both in its conclusion and its implicit superiority. But it's not necessarily wrong. Eventually, the laughing stops.
Nevertheless, humour plays a pivotal role in the British personality. It is the way we deal with light and heavy situations alike. It is how we make the world tolerable.
I was on a train not long ago, coming back from a party, when a man leaned forward off the platform ahead of us and killed himself. His head hit the train just a few feet from where I was sitting. For a long time the train sat there before they let us off. On the front was shattered glass and blood. People gathered round to stare. One guy took photos. Eventually we started making jokes. They were not cruel jokes. They were mundane. "He obviously didn't think much of the logo." Or: "Lucky for him the train was on time for once." They weren't very funny. But they were our way of staring at something unnerving, at the abyss basically, and making it tolerable. It was a form of solidarity.
The British refusal to take anything too seriously has a very practical benefit: It acts as a barrier against tyranny. This is not, as some post-hoc war historians have concluded, because we are somehow morally superior to our continental cousins. It's because we distrust anyone who takes themselves too seriously. And dictators and ideologues find it difficult to live with that.
Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world for the same reason it never succumbed to communist or fascist government. It is averse to absolutist thought. British ideas are small and practical. Even the industrial revolution, by which Britain made the modern world, was not made by thinkers. It was by practical men who wanted to get stuff from one place to another faster. This is a very good trait if you do not want to see lots of people die. It prevents the guillotine. Britain, even at the moral nadir of empire, was not a bloodthirsty country.
Perhaps it is the humour, or the anti-absolutism, but eccentricity is elevated to a higher status here than elsewhere. This is useful because eccentrics push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and widen the edges of what we will tolerate. They challenge accepted truths. They disprove our current thinking, or strengthen it by opposition. They show that conformity is a choice, not a mandate.
A school near where I grew up used to have the motto: "Manners Maketh Man". I always thought it a dreadful proclamation. They had one quality they wanted to point out and it wasn't kindness or loyalty or bravery – it was basically holding your fork right.
And then I went to India and I saw what life was like without manners. Much of the rest of the world, but especially Asia, is composed of people who are much more abrupt, who see no reason to use ten words when two will suffice. I used to think that way. Then I saw the way it cemented social inequality. Because no matter how abrupt your culture, the poor will still be serving the rich and they'll be expected to be polite about it.
Embedding politeness into the way we conduct ourselves does something to correct that. It does not cure inequality, and indeed for some it will be a bourgeois hypocrisy. But it prevents inequality turning into subservience. It's the fluid between the joints of society, preventing us getting too cross and violent with one another.
The British demand for modesty has a similar effect. Arrogance and self-praise are frowned upon. Self-deprecation and understatement are considered admirable. This prevents it turning into a dog-vs-dog world where the strongest, the richest and the most confident always win. It provides cover for those who are less imposing to gain higher social status. It equalises.
Observe the way people are with their bosses in the UK. Here, it is considered bad form to praise them to their face. Sycophancy is socially frowned upon. This is a marvellous characteristic. It has improved the quality of your day-to-day life, but you hardly recognise it. You would if it was gone.
Anything that can be said about Britain can also be denied. It is its own opposite. We say it is reserved, but then we see the high street on a Saturday night. We say it is unequal, but then we observe all these equalising social habits. We say it is inward looking, but then we notice that it has embraced a multi-racial society with remarkable speed.
This is a good trait for a country. It makes it a puzzle. And countries should be mulled over, they should not reveal themselves too readily. They should not have straight edges and clear lines. They should be murky and hard to discern.
But it is also a demonstration of complexity and freedom. It shows that a country is alive, it is teeming with people who are free enough to defy convention, and act as they wish.
The UK was not created by the sword, although there was plenty of it in its past. It was created by agreement. The various tribes of this island have been fighting and teaming up, competing and cooperating, for centuries. Go back as far as you like and it is the same. We remember the Viking raids. But we rarely consider that Danes fought against the French. It is a roiling stream of battle and friendship. The union was a peace treaty which proved remarkably effective.
The union meant national identity could be seen through the prism of mixture. An aversion to purity was embedded into its DNA. Its founding charter was that of many things in one: a flag made of a composite of flags, a country made of nations. It was the first multicultural act in a country which has become arguably the most multicultural in the world.
Britain is a liberating concept precisely because it does not hinge on national identity. It is political. It is fluid. It gives freedom to those who associate with it. That is why immigrants typically find it a more seductive offer than Englishness. And it is why we are socially so free, because absolutists – political or religious – struggle to force us into a singular sense of identity.
It has become bad form to mention Britain's achievements, but that is a madness. It is like scolding a child for succeeding.
Of course, our crimes are terrible. They were not just what we did do – invent concentration camps, partition India at the cost of half a million lives, try to overthrow elected socialist governments. It is also what we did not do – the way we gave up on countries which we had responsibility for, the failure to go to war in Rhodesia against racists, the disinterest which resulted in today's broken Middle East.
Our crimes are monstrous. But our achievements are not shadowed by them. Because when you look at the achievements they correspond to the strange freedom of the British personality. The invention of capitalism, of industry, of the world language – an intensely democratic and free language. These are the products of a free society. The men who invented Communism and Anarchism in the Victorian era did so here. Why? Because Britain accepted them when others would not.
And those achievements continue today. They have not disappeared just because the Tories are privatising anything they can get their hands on
I was speaking recently to a foreign lawyer who deals with the most outrageous injustices in the British immigration system on a daily basis. At the end of the conversation she said: "But the British legal system is still the best in the world. It offers people, just ordinary people, so many powers over their leaders. When I talk to lawyers overseas they are shocked at the options open to me to challenge the powerful."
Our legal system, the NHS, the BBC: these are the institutions which hold our society together. They are not coincidences. They were made by a free society, which valued difference and stability.
Of course, a supporter of Scottish independence will say that we will keep these traits even if we end the union. They believe that nothing will change and everything will change all at once. But this is not just about democratic systems. It is about separation on the basis of identity. The walls we put up will change us.
Scotland for Scots, Wales for the Welsh, England for the English. Everyone will go their separate ways. And that freedom, that indelible stamp of multiculturalism, will be diluted.