I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Britain isn’t “the greatest country on earth”

Heartless poor-basher Ian Duncan Smith was parading on TV the other day, drumming up support for leaving the European Union. Britain, he claimed

“is the greatest country on earth, not because it’s the biggest or the strongest, but because it has the most brilliant people”.

Well he’s right to identify that we’re not the biggest or strongest. In fact, it’s lucky that the evidence Duncan Smith cites is something mindlessly vague, because we’re certainly not topping any global legal tables for anything that can actually be measured. Even the ultra-nationalist Daily Mail can only manage to prove ‘above average’, and that’s on an extremely self-selective basis.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to like about Britain, and British people are great. I know lots of them, and they’re perfectly nice. Some are even ‘above average’. But the greatest people in the world? I find that a stretch. I’ve travelled fairly extensively, and my experience of British people is that they’re pretty similar to all other people. They work hard, they can be really funny, they want security and happiness, they often make stupid mistakes trying to achieve these goals, and, perhaps the most fatal and universal of all human flaws, they have a strange irrational propensity for thinking that their culture and people are superior to others.

It’s funny how very few non-British people seem to think Britain is the best country on earth, and how many others think their own country is the best. Americans, for example, are renowned for thinking their country is the greatest; nationalism is far from a purely British phenomenon. At it’s heart, I can’t really see the difference between arguing that your country is the greatest in the world and that you are the best person in the world. The only difference is that a country is just a better echo chamber for people to agree with your views than purely inside your own deluded mind. It’s perfectly ok for you to love your country; after all you were born there and have been indoctrinated into the culture from birth. But loving Britain is different from thinking it’s better than everyone else. A weird superiority complex is certainly not the basis upon which to make arguments on world-changing geopolitical decisions with far-reaching and potentially catastrophic consequences, as apparently Iain Duncan Smith has decided to.

The rise of ultra-nationalism and ‘past glory’ politics in other countries should serve as a warning to Britain: you can’t fight reality with mindless emotive rhetoric. Donald Trump wants to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border with Mexico and introduce huge taxes on Chinese imports. Vladimir Putin thinks he can recapture the glory of the Soviet Union by starting some inconvenient wars and refusing to co-operate with the global community, while the Russian economy crumbles around him. Britain must not follow them down this blind alley. The empire is over. The East India company has fallen. Brexiteers want to blame the European Union for Britain’s diminished status in the world, but the truth is that our flame has been going out for a long time, and only our strong efforts to integrate ourselves with other powers has maintained our prominent position on the world stage. Nationalism, and cutting ties with others in the deluded belief we still have the strength to go it alone, is the height of foolishness. Annoying all our neighbours, damaging our economic ties and shrieking about our superiority is not going to recapture lost glory.

Thankfully, mindless patriotism seems to be on the slide. With each generation, fewer and fewer people consider themselves ‘very patriotic’ (just 15% of 18-24 year olds, compared with 49% of over 60s). This is promising for a future Britain that sees itself as part of a global community, not a playground bully with a superiority complex and an irrational unwillingness to co-operate with anyone on equal terms. There are many reasons to dislike the European Union, to want to see it reformed. There are also many genuinely reasonable reasons to want to leave, so let’s hear some of those. Nationalism might seem more fun than realism, more empowering and more exciting. But it’s time to face the postcolonial music: Britain is not the greatest country on earth. It just isn’t.

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