Listening to the international interviewees in Neil MacGregor’s recent Radio Four series, As Others See Us, I have been struck by the extent of the bewilderment and disillusion they all felt when discussing Brexit Britain.
It was not a revelation as such that people are bemused by the bumbling politics of Britain today – I have heard as much from European friends who once admired this country for its pragmatism and level-headedness.
But here, the diversity of the critics was interesting – not just the Germans, but also the Nigerians and Egyptians, not just the Canadians, but the Indians, were saddened and in a way looked down upon this country that was once powerful enough to impose its rule on some of these lands. They might not be all that enamoured of the colonialism that bound their countries to ours, but even those angry at harsh British behaviour in their colonized lands didn’t use to think of us as being stupid.
And even my Turkish friends, who look with horror at how illogical and backward the politics of their home country has become under former reformer Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have time to contemplate the great fall of Great Britain. “Great big England, Great Britain – how can they be such idiots? How can they have fallen so badly,” said one acquaintance over a cup of coffee recently, sighing. “It’s all so childish. They’re as bad as us now.”
Indeed, that is the basic premise of Turkish novelist and journalist Ece Temelkuran’s new book – How to Lose a Country – which she says she wrote as a warning to countries such as Britain caught in a chaotic slide towards populism and away from reason. A cautionary tale for Western countries that have always looked pityingly towards less advanced democracies such as Turkey, comforted by the relief that “this would never happen here.”
Turks are used to their country being belittled abroad. So much so that there is a sector of the media that is dedicated to reporting perceived slights: “How dare they criticize our human rights/elections/corruption/driving/recycling! Hypocrites!” Or: “Outside forces are trying to break up our country! Leave us alone!” — the carrion cry of many Turkish newspapers, spewing offence and anger into an already febrile environment and creating an irrational, out-of-control yet easily exploited persecution complex. On the other hand, any praise, recognition or suspect celebrity news is seized upon as news that Turkey is a Really Great Country: “The famous, Turkish Dr Oz is in the news again!” “Scandinavians love our handsome Turkish men!” etc etc.
The fact that Britain didn’t really indulge in such narcissism would make me grateful that at least here was a country that had confidence enough to rise above such inanities born from the need for external affirmation. But I have been wondering now if that was not simply a sign of arrogance, lack of curiosity and insularity.
Watch the first episode of Inside Europe, the BBC TV series charting Britain’s progress towards and beyond the 2016 EU referendum, and that is what you see, as David Cameron repeatedly makes bombastic statements about how he is going to tell the EU “what’s what” and heroically defends his country against…well, you are never entirely sure.
Having made his Eurosceptic-authored demands to surprised, and sometimes quite openly scathing, European figures, he repeatedly returns to Blighty with his tail between his legs, as apparently unsure about why he didn’t triumph as the European politicians are about why on earth he keeps asking for things that he should know are impossible if the European Union is to preserve its integrity. A similar parallel might be drawn with Theresa May’s repeated “dialogue of the deaf” trips to Brussels.
Early on during his leadership, Cameron deprived his country’s conservative MEPs of the chance to be in the know by taking them out of the European People’s Party – the main centre-right grouping of MEPs in Brussels ( He then made it a habit of flouncing off when he didn’t get his way (Jean Claude Juncker) and indulging in overblown rhetoric at home that ensured he was ultimately viewed as a failure in the media and among Eurosceptics even when he did win concessions.
There is a failure again and again to grasp what is important and possible in relations with the EU, which is surely in part a refusal to acknowledge how others see us, and to look at them in our turn and see what they are about. It’s the political equivalent of Brits going abroad and speaking loudly to uncomprehending natives – spurred on by a lack of observation and engagement.
But that doesn’t work any more. When the world is shifting, and countries such as China, Russia and India are growing in influence, it is a bad time for a traditionally pragmatic country like Britain to voluntarily be losing status and admirers. The big problems of the day are global — Little England will not help find the answers to issues such as dangerous populism, international terrorism, climate change, automation by leaving the engine room to unknown and not always benign quantities.
There is a striking passage in Jonathan Coe’s Brexit novel, Middle England, when Helena, the forbidding mother-in-law of a main character, regales a visiting Chinese businessmen with her thesis about how she is more oppressed by political correctness in the UK than anyone in his country is by their own government. Bonkers.
The mythology and willful misreading of the world that is allowed when we refuse to be curious about others and interested in how we look to them reaches its zenith in the interminable and frankly embarrassing World War II rhetoric that emanates from people in positions where you would hope they would know better.
MacGregor told the Guardian that the idea that the UK “stood alone” during the Second World War was incomprehensible to most Germans. Yes, there was the acknowledged achievement of resisting invasion and pushing back as others appeared to crumble but, MacGregor said: “…for the Germans…the Second World War was won by the Russians and the Americans, with help from the British.”
In his compelling book, The Naked Diplomat, former ambassador Tom Fletcher preaches the importance of self-awareness and communication – in this case by embracing technology and wrestling it away from the bad guys trying to manipulate and troll their way into our unsuspecting lives. Fletcher speaks of a world increasingly divided not between right and left or along religious lines, but between people who are willing to live together in mutual tolerance, and those who are not. “The greatest dangers is in fact the loss of the curiosity to learn from each other, the loss of the desire to live together,” he writes.
Image is important. They way a country is perceived can often have a direct link with how a country’s people are treated. When she first went to Turkey in the 1970s, my  mother was considered a dignified “Lady” and approached with respect, since the only image ordinary Turks had of Britain at the time was class, period dramas and superiority. Then package tourism took off and an influx of young (and not so young) “good time girls” flirting with the aforementioned “handsome Turkish men” led to years of being propositioned in the streets. This was followed by a stream of tales of older British women, unaware of the reality of their situation, marrying Turkish waiters or similar, who were completely aware of theirs, only to be cheated and abandoned once the British residency was acquired or the house in the sun bought in his name.
Frivolity aside, there are of course millions of thoughtful Britons – including even politicians — who do not fit the stereotype of insular and uncurious. But they do not hold the reins of power.
As for the others, it is one thing not to be unduly worried by what others think of you, it is quite another to not care to the extent that you can be oblivious to any glaring fault that is there for all to see. The end result then is that MacGregor’s interviewees from India and Nigeria, writers from Turkey, politicians from Bulgaria and many like them all think we’ve gone mad. And, possibly for the first time in history, they have a new feeling towards this country, which once boasted it ruled the world – pity.