Like I’d guess sixty million other Brits I’m in a bit of a daze. First it was the man with the side-burns on his bike, then the Olympics, then the Paralympics and now Andy Murray. We sit in front of our TV screens in an ever-expanding pool of drool…
But something has changed. We hear endlessly that Murray’s Grand Slam victory is the first for a British man since Fred Perry in the 1920s. But I have to say, I think that’s missing the point entirely. As I said: something has changed; but it hasn’t been those magnificent sportsmen and women. They’ve done more than was expected of them. No, it’s us, ordinary viewers, run-of-the-mill Brits, who are the folk who’ve changed – and we’re too busy being nice about the high-achievers on our screens to realise the profound way in which our national character has been transformed since the last war.
In Britain we’re quite good at recognising our short-comings: some of us are too fat; many drink too much; we’re still plagued by nasty extremists of various sorts and there’s a large and worrying split developing between the richest and poorest members of our society. But in common with the Germans, I think we’ve slowly come to terms with our history, which hasn’t always been Happy and Glorious. I don’t take the view that the British Empire ‘gave’ the world modernity. It probably hastened an inevitable process, but haste and history don’t always sit happily together. Sometimes change requires time, as I believe we are seeing in many Islamic nations, and in Africa in general. Wearing my anthropologist’s hat I’m still firmly convinced that our introduction of Christianity to ‘The Dark Continent’, as many Victorian missionaries saw it, was a complete disaster. Poor Africa: we left her in a right old mess.
But what of us? If we have indeed come to terms with our past, where has that left us? Happy and Glorious? Almost right. Happy, sometimes, perhaps, but Glorious, no. I don’t think most modern Brits give a toss about that sort of Glory (with a capital G). And that’s how we differ from our counterparts in Victorian and earlier twentieth-century times. We’re Brits, they, rather consciously perhaps, were Britons.
So have we lost a sense of national pride? No, I don’t think so. We’ve grown up. We’re perfectly content to be third in the world in the Olympic and Paralympic tables and indeed that’s punching massively above our weight (when seen in terms of medals versus population). But would a Victorian or Edwardian Briton have been happy with that? No, they’d have been profoundly humiliated. But speaking entirely for myself, I’d much rather be identified with a nation that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that’s aware of its failings and then every so often does something remarkable – and here I’m thinking not of medals, but of railways, antibiotics, splitting the atom, the DNA molecule and the internet. All of these things have benefitted mankind in general, and not ourselves in particular. They’re also very long-lasting. And that, surely, is what really matters.