There are little corners of England, by-passed by major routes, where the progress of civilisation is impeded by geography and it is possible to imagine that time has stood still. One such place is Arnside & Silverdale, a chunky peninsula to the west of the M6 just above Lancaster. Here I walked all day through a landscape in which the traces of human habitation are fainter, lighter on the ground than usual. It’s not absolute, of course: there is a railway line that courses doggedly North-South following the coastline as close as it dares; there are defunct smelting chimneys left over from earlier industrial enterprises; farms double-up as holiday retreats and there is a large (but well camouflaged) settlement of chalets nestled into a small bay. Still, on a summer’s day in June, when the countryside is wearing its cloak of a thousand shades of green spotted with flowers of every imaginable colour, it seems there is no finer place to be than in England. How easily we are duped.
England is, in many respects, a fine country, but so are many others and none can claim to be top of the pile: there is not even a possibility of ranking them since we cannot agree a common matrix of measurement. Objectivity is impossible as long as our minds are fixed by feelings of patriotism or claims of ownership and our understanding is limited by ignorance and fear of the other. This is why phrases such as “putting the ‘great’ back into Britain”, or “making America great again” are so ridiculous. It is also why you should go and see Michael Moore’s latest film, Where To Invade Next?
The film highlights some key social policies in various European countries and compares them with American practice: during its course I was provoked to laughter and tears but, in the end, to outrage. If you see the film you might, like me, watch in amazement as French primary schoolchildren sit down, every day, to a three-course lunch prepared by a chef and served by waiting staff; envy the Italian workers who go home for a two-hour lunch break and get eight weeks paid leave; cheer the Slovenians who provide free university tuition for their people – and anyone else who cares to enrol; applaud the Finns whose kids attend school three hours a day, take no SATs and are the world’s best-educated (they also have no private schools – rich and poor grow up together); congratulate the Icelanders, the first to elect a female president and the only ones to have prosecuted, convicted and jailed their bankers; admire the Germans whose generous and sympathetic approach to mental healthcare is respectful and wise; nod to the Norwegians who actively rehabilitate their prisoners; praise the Portuguese who refuse to criminalise drug-users.
All right, there are probably some aspects of life in all of these countries which are less than satisfactory, but the common thread is their embrace of a basic principle – nurturing citizens so that they in turn nurture each other: the wellbeing of society is thereby addressed organically. The examples in the film highlight the fact that the policies pursued in the USA are exactly the opposite. America puts individual gain above social harmony and appears not to see the cause and effect. This should worry us all – and it should particularly worry Brits, because Michael Moore saw no reason to come to here.
I like being English/British/European (though I prefer to think European/British/English) if only because there are nations less fortunate that I might have been born into – just ask any refugee. Better still, however, I like the notion, expressed by Marguerite Yourcenar*, that “one’s true birthplace is that wherein, for the first time, one looks intelligently upon oneself.”