7 October 2012

Is Britain still great asks panel in British Empire debate

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The loaded imperialistic connotations of the ‘Great’ in Great Britain need to be shed if our country is to earn its prefix, a panel at the Cheltenham Literature Festival agreed, reports Georgia Hussey.

The panel, including MP Jack Straw, the Great British Bake Off’s Mel Gledroyc, Libby Purves and Ben Macintyre of The Times, and Kwasi Kwarteng MP, joined together to work out Is Great Britain Still Great?

Though the show of audience hands at the end of the debate weighed heavily in favour of Britain’s greatness, the result was qualified by the panellists.

“Great Britain was only ever a geographical description of the nations that came together,” Libby Purves noted, “it was never intended to mean great” in the other sense. Using the prefix in this emotionally charged way is dangerous, she added; “it’s a word that upsets and confuses, leads to BNP politics and post-colonial nostalgia”.

Instead she suggested dumping the ‘Great’ to concentrate what Britain is good at: “which is not intervening in foreign wars…but creativity, at absorption and taking in the Huguenot, Jewish, Caribbean refugees, and making them British within a generation”.

Columnist Ben Macintyre agreed with the need for Britain’s greatness to move away from the nostalgia of the empire. “Though we are greater now than we were during the time of the empire, when we allow then to overshadow now, we are at our worst,” he said. “We are at our greatest when we are eccentric, and ingenious, and modest” rather than powerful, he said.

But we have to acknowledge that there are good and bad things about the empire, said Macintyre. One such positive aspect noted by Jack Straw, was the international aspect it has given Britain. “Because of our traditions and history, or the better parts of it, we do have a sense of international responsibility, which is different from other countries” such as perhaps Brazil or China, he said.

In terms of international power, people do still listen to Britain, Ben Macintyre agreed. “There is a moral power that is underrated in Britain, and we should be thinking about power less in terms of uniform, but as using Britain’s moral suasion to make statements about the world that will be listened to”.

But, to be great, Britain must also look after its own citizens. Comparing our economy to the burgeoning British Empire makes it harder to say this Britain is still great, noted one audience member. And, as Libby Purves noted, our education system is facing widespread problems, where we Britain “risk writing off a huge number of young people”.

But in spite of the economic difficulties Britain is in, 2012 has marked a change, according to Kwasi Kwarteng MP. The problems of broken Britain haven’t necessarily been solved, he said, “but in terms of mentality we are slightly different, and slightly more optimistic, in spite of the economic difficulties we are in”. This he put down to the Olympics: “2012 could mark the beginning of something exciting.”

In terms of Britain’s new place in the world, the Olympics is an example of what we should be, said Jack Straw: “Leaders of an empire of the mind, which works by persuasion and example, not by force of arms.”

Georgia Hussey


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