Tuesday, 27 August 2013

"Green and Pleasant Land"?

The best that can be said is that it's still got green things in it.

After two years of Japan, these pictures follow my temporary “return” to the United Kingdom.  Maybe soon the Not-So-United Kingdom if the Scots go independent next year. Something to think about: who gets the UK's current seat on the UN Security Council if that happens?

The UK was never the place I wished to be, nor is it any more so now. But getting outside London to quieter areas where people are friendlier, and society not quite so obliterated by the Conservative Party's assault on all that is good in basic humanity, can offer much-needed fresh air both literal and figurative. These are the Malvern Hills, a ridge in the West Midlands near the border with Wales.

Unlike Japan, England lacks proper mountains and has little left in the way of wilderness (another thing that sets it apart from Scotland and Wales). The human presence has thoroughly terraformed virtually every part of the country it has touched. As such, however picturesque the countryside, there is no getting away from the UK's persistently ominous human context.

Last week, acting on government orders, the police arrested the partner of a Guardian journalist at Heathrow Airport. They interrogated him for nine hours, threatening him with prison, and seizing his mobile phone, laptop, memory sticks, and even his game console: because they feared he was carrying material related to the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the exposure of the systematic spying of British and American authorities on their own citizens and who knows what else.

So of course the police invoked anti-terrorism legislation to do this, while politicians have been bringing out their usual fearmongering rhetoric about aiding terrorists and the like. As if this were not enough, the Prime Minister then saw fit to have The Guardian newspaper threatened into physically destroying its computers containing Snowden-related materials, even sending government thugs to go in and oversee that destruction.

There has of course been a public outcry, and a corresponding counter-outcry. But this affair stands out not for being exceptional, but, on the contrary, being typical in the Britain of today. The sequence seems to go:

a) Someone does something utterly reprehensible. It may be political repression like the above, from harassing journalists to covering up crimes against humanity in the name of “national security”; or it may be a socio-economic atrocity wrought under the Conservatives' austerity programme; or it might be something xenophobic, like the billboard vans threatening immigrants, or the UK Border Agency randomly interrogating black or brown people in train stations. Britain is fertile ground for generating creative forms of cruelty these days.
b) A lot of people protest and make angry noises.
c) The bad guys defend the indefensible. It's always the same arguments – security, counter-terrorism, the economy, immigration, and so on – the same buzzwords and boogeymen brought in to justify the same derelictions of humanity, be it persecuting whistleblowers, widening the gap between the privileged elite and the most vulnerable's abject misery, or intimidating foreigners out of plain racism.
d) No-one is properly held to account, and things get worse.

The thing is, it isn't just monsters in the government, or the banks, or the police, or the Murdoch press that are responsible for this. The problem is not just a political but social. Too many people have embraced these repressive or prejudicial currents, and given them prominence; too many see fit to make themselves comfortable with the infliction of shocking cruelties on other human beings, and to justify that as acceptable, even as necessary, for a functioning country.

The British know all this, of course, whether they deplore this state of affairs (which I hope most do) or live in denial. I wonder how familiar this is to those outside the UK though? It seems staggering to me that so many people want to go and live there; still more staggering that it can still be defined in global consciousnesses more by romanic imaegs of the royal family and red buses and union jacks than by the relentless decay of the actual circumstances for people in it.
Beneath those postcard pictures, this is a country whose defining dynamic is – and perhaps always has been – conflict. It is diverse, like perhaps all countries, but beneath its courteous veneers there rages as vicious a struggle as any between competing visions of what kind of country it should be. Britain has no singular cultural base, no dominant heritage to answer that question: there is no such thing as British ethnicity, Britain's national identity itself the emergent of hundreds of years of immigration since time immemorial.

At the south end of the Malvern hills, there stands this hill fort. Appropriately for this discussion, it's known as “British Camp”. It is thought to date back about 2200 years, to the UK's Iron Age, and the archaeology hints at hundreds of years of struggle on this site since then to define where different Britishnesses began or ended. The Romans (from Italy); the Normans (from France); the Anglo-Saxons (from Germany); the Vikings (from Scandinavia); the Welsh; even bickering dynasties of local nobles, their names adorned with fancy titles and numerical suffixes, are thought to have contested these beacons. The Victorians liked the water that came from these mountains, and developed an infrastructure to draw on it – and theirs were harrowing visions for Britain if anyone's were. And when you walk on this ridge nowadays, chances are that you'll encounter, as I did, people of origins even further afield, talking perhaps in Polish or Chinese or Punjabi, or with accents from the Caribbean or the United States; all part of a Britain which still fights with itself over what “British” means, what “human” means, and what the relationship is between them.

So let's be clear: Britain's heritage is not something to celebrate or be proud of. It is certainly not the case that respect for liberty, diversity and human righs are the defining characteristics of its national DNA. Rather they represent at most just one strand of what is still a double helix, with the other coded from horror and atrocity that must equally be faced up to. Political repression; power-tripping authoritarianism; an addiction to punishment and fear and demands for obedience; and the most harrowing crimes against humanity based on supremacisms and prejudices across the whole bloody spectrum. Racisms, sexisms, heteronormativisms, ageisms, fear and hatred of all who could possibly in any way at all be construed as “different”, as “other”: Britain's problem may be not just that these are its problems, but that these became part of what it is.

Is that why the political, social and economic abuses of today are so accepted here? When David Cameron orders a newspaper's computers destroyed, or Home Office thugs round on random Muslims in broad daylight, or success and failure is judged by abstract economic indicators instead of actual human experiences and sufferings; is it because that kind of human callousness is so established in the long British story that no critical mass can be reached to strike them down? Do they weave on ancient threads, the likes of colonialism, massacres abroad, religious persecutions, witch-burning hysterias, and the never-ending examples of that most unpardonable and foolish of mistakes: the belief that more force, more fear, is the answer to any problem?

I cannot purport to suggest solutions to Britain's problems. It is not a country I identify with; after the things I experienced on account of it, with the frameworks of alienation and paradigms of persecution of the “different” still in place here, it is sadly not a society I can feel at peace with, let alone yet consider reconciliation.

What I feel, though, is that to even begin to pass as a decent country, let alone the 'green and pleasant land' of its dreams, it will have to find it in itself to change at a fundamental level. To find the humility to come to terms with the worse parts of its heritage, and categorically deny them a place in its future. To get past its hypnosis on abstract nothings and self-justifying dogmas – the faith of economics, “interest”-driven politics and foreign policy, “democracy”, “development” and so on – and come to measure its worth in terms of how its real decisions affect real human beings, and take responsibility. To recognize that Britain's heroes, who fought against tyranny and slavery and patriarchy and so on, fought not against fearsome demons on the deepest floors of dungeons far across the sea, but against Britain itself: against a country which held so many bloodlusts and bigotries to be natural, normal and just.

Britain has nothing to fear from immigrants, or dissidents, or deserters, or whistleblowers, or the deficit. First it should fear itself: that half of its own soul that hungers for blood at the very mention of such things. The true enemy of British human beings is British inhumanity.

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