First a modest suggestion to our new Home Secretary Priti Patel.
She’s good at rallying cries, but one should never underestimate the potential of rallying songs, especially those with catchy tunes.
Fortunately Leonard Bernstein has already written one to fill the bill. All Home Office employees can start every morning by singing: “I feel Priti// Oh, so Priti// I feel Priti and witty and bright!// And I pity// Any girl who isn’t me tonight”.
Miss Patel will need time to ponder the ramifications of such vocal team building. Meanwhile, she has adopted the rallying cry already issued by her boss, Boris Johnson: “We want to unequivocally make Britain the greatest country on Earth.”
Now, since I can split hairs almost as well as Miss Patel can split infinitives, I’m asking the question in the title above.
Her statement goes further than Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” and our own “Putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain”, first used for the trivial purpose of promoting Olympic Games.
Now great is no longer enough: nothing but the bombastic “the greatest country on earth” will do. Whenever such terms are bandied about, my first instinct is to head for the hills.
What does ‘great’ mean? What are the objective criteria, if any? And if the criteria are subjective, who’s the subject?
Now, as far as I’m concerned, Britain already is the greatest country on earth. I’ve lived in several, and Britain is the only one where I feel at home.
I don’t like everything about Britain. In fact, I never tire of pointing out things that are wrong with her. But Britain’s problems are existential, not ontological. There’s a reservoir of goodness from which we can still draw, even though successive governments have done their level best to poison the waters.
Few of the things I love about Britain have to do with economics. Such things matter less to me than those I consider truly important.
However, most people will probably rate money and the physical comfort it buys above all. And Britain certainly isn’t the richest country in the world. Her GDP per capita places her at Number 26, behind not only the usual suspects but, at Number 5, even Ireland.
Hence most Britons will perhaps feel that putting the ‘Great’ back into Britain means putting more money into their pockets. Is this what Miss Patel and Mr Johnson mean?
Some countries apply different criteria. Unable to serve Mammon, they try to mollify their disgruntled populations by pretending to serve God. Russia has used that trick since time immemorial, and she continues to claim, on no obvious evidence, to be the most spiritual – and therefore greatest – country on earth.
This is accompanied with a claim to imperial greatness: Russia is eager to force the benefits of her sterling spirituality onto her neighbours, by violence if need be.
Do Miss Patel and Mr Johnson judge greatness on this basis? Do they want our Toms, Dicks and Harrys to outdo everyone else in spiritual attainment and imperial muscle? Somehow one doubts it.
Whenever a nation claims or aspires to be the greatest in the world, it’s usually a sign of provincial cultural insecurity. Yet Britain has never been provincial, and she has nothing to be culturally insecure about.
Her cultural capital is being squandered, but this is the case everywhere. Britain has enough left to remain one of perhaps three or four most cultured countries around. Given the state of the world, this may not be saying much, but it’s still saying something.
Britons still possess enough taste not to make megalomaniac claims about themselves. They retain enough self-confidence not to toot their own horn, perhaps realising that, when a nation does so, the horn produces nothing but goose-stepping marches.
But we aren’t talking about the Britons here. We’re talking about the British government, and that’s a different matter altogether.
British, or any other modern, government isn’t in the business of using words to convey serious meaning. In this case, if probed, our leaders will probably admit that making Britain the world’s richest, strongest or perhaps the most spiritual country falls into the domain of wishful and shallow thinking.
However, Miss Patel and Mr Johnson aren’t putting forth a thought or, God forbid, a policy. They are shouting a slogan.
And whenever British ministers shout a slogan featuring the adjective ‘great’, especially in its superlative form, it usually means only one thing. They’re going to spend more of the money they haven’t got.
I haven’t tried to cost the promises Mr Johnson has made already and is continuing to make. I doubt he has either.
In that he follows the logic of all the recent governments: print and borrow promiscuously. Eventually the fiscal chickens will come to roost, but the next general election will come sooner.
Mr Johnson is already talking about ending austerity, as if it has ever begun. By analogy, a man who incontinently spends 30 per cent more than he earns doesn’t become more austere when that number goes down to 15 per cent. He becomes slightly less irresponsible.
Priti Patel used the promise to make Britain the greatest country on earth as a way of promoting her immigration policy based on the Australian-style points system. Yet this lofty aim can’t quite be achieved merely by asking immigrants what they do for a living.
In fact, this aim can’t be achieved at all because it’s always ephemeral and usually pernicious. Before a country becomes great, it should become good, and the two objectives are at odds as often as not.
Unlike great, good isn’t hard to define. The standards of personal goodness are laid down in Matthew, 5-7, whereas the standards of consistent political goodness have been indelibly written into Britain’s history by her sages and statesmen of the past centuries.
No other country in Europe can make the same claim. France, for example, has had 17 different constitutions since the seventeenth century, while England has had one. A mere 80 years ago Spain was being torn apart by a civil war, and Italy was a fascist dictatorship. And Germany… well, we know about her.
Britain is suffering from existential problems, threatening to enter the nation’s gene pool and become ontological. So instead of shouting empty phrases about greatness, a truly conservative government should try to make the country good again.
It has illustrious partners to co-opt: the sages and statesmen of Britain’s past, those who made her good and therefore, for a while, indeed great. And what do you know: they did so without opening the sluice gates to millions of immigrants, especially cultural aliens.
When foreigners like Holbein, Handel, Freud or for that matter the Duke of Edinburgh wished to settle in Britain, they didn’t have to score a certain number of points to gain entry. They – even Freud – just came and were cordially welcomed.
I doubt this government can make Britain great. However, I do pray it’ll be able to achieve simpler goals: getting out of the EU and defeating Corbyn. That would be good.
P.S. LibDem leader Jo Swinson has promised to fight Brexit tooth and nail even if a second referendum produces the same result. It’s good to see such strong convictions in someone so young, but what strikes me as slightly incongruous is that Miss Swinson’s party is called Liberal Democratic.