Leo Baeck 1


Jun 2008 Journal

previous article:Supping with the devil
next article:Art notes (review)

The Britain we live in

The Britain we now live in has changed very much from the one I first knew. There is no longer a pride in one’s country. The virtue of the stiff upper lip is ridiculed. Queuing is often ignored. Contemporary Britain has turned into a back-biting, self-denigrating society which has sacrificed the old rules on the altar of modernity and has only trendy stratagems for their replacement. Not even Winston Churchill has been left unmocked. Climbing on the bandwagon of one-upmanship and touchy-feeliness are the flavours of the day. Despite increasing taxation, sneakily introduced, the country’s infrastructure has not improved.

Two current topics highlight the state of Britain. One is asylum-seekers, the other the Euro. Asylum-seekers first. As a former refugee myself, I empathise with them. Yet, while there are many foreigners (like me) who had, or can acquire, a right to live here, not all have an inalienable right to settle here, or anywhere else for that matter. There is a profound difference between those truly in fear of life and limb and those who merely wish to improve their lot. Surely restrictions are justified to control the flood of the world’s poor. There is a need for immigrants, but the influx needs to be regulated in the country’s interest and the immigrants’ long-term interest as well.

An awkward problem - often ignored - has to be stressed. Previous waves of immigrants - whether they were Huguenots, Jamaicans or Jews - accepted the need to integrate and adapt to the majority culture, without sacrificing their identity. This assimilation process no longer applies to recent waves. They insist on retaining all the aspects of their culture, often in direct opposition to the mores of the host country. Catering to the immigrant’s lifestyle now goes under the heading of ‘multi-culturalism’. Regrettably, no such tolerance is extended to non-believers or minorities in the immigrants’ home countries.

An unprejudiced, colour-blind community, desirable as the ideal is, may exist in parts of Hampstead and Islington, but regrettably nowhere else. The outcome of any enforced policy which goes against the grain of a population which feels itself threatened is the same for every endangered species – it becomes extreme and violent.

The issue also has a bearing on the argument about whether or not Britain should adopt the Euro as its currency. I consider myself a European, and though to me Britain is part of Europe, I am not in favour of joining the single currency. I am against it not for economic but for political reasons. Britain’s long history overall shows a favourable balance of good over evil. I have greater confidence in this country’s standards of public life, even if they are dubious at times, than in those on the Continent, where devotion to tolerance and democracy is of more recent vintage.

People change, nations change, but one’s perception of the past does not. I and all those who found a refuge in this country owe Britain a debt. It was this nation which, at long last, stood up to Hitler in 1939; and it was Britain which, after the defeat of its allies, faced the might of a victorious Germany all alone. By standing firm it saved Europe from regressing into the Dark Ages. Half-a-century later this intrepid chapter tends not only to be disparaged, but the new wave of modernisers brush it aside.

So far, a rapidly changing world has only marginally affected the small community in which we live. There are more cars, a few more dwellings and talk of a lot more to come. Gone are the small store, the post office and the village policeman. When we arrived 23 years ago, the vast majority of inhabitants were locals whose roots went back for generations. Now, a clear division has become apparent. On one side of the village are those born and raised here, living in council houses; on the other side are commuters and comfortable incomers who live in loftier dwellings. Only the village green, the church and graveyard attest to what was once a closely knit community with a life of its own.

Looking back at my ABC periods, I am content to complete the journey in Britain, where we have spent more years now than in either Austria or Canada. By now, I am past the Sturm und Drang Jahre, when I felt the need to identify with a specific nationality. Still, if one has to be labelled, I have no objection to being called an Austrian Jew of British and Canadian nationality who prefers to live in England. Nor do I mind getting older as long as I do not feel old. 

This article is excerpted from the author’s ‘My A (For Austria), B (For Britain), C (For Canada) Trilogy: Short Version’.


Jussi Brainin

previous article:Supping with the devil
next article:Art notes (review)