May 10, 2007

'This is the greatest nation on earth'

Britain I can tell you what a number of newspaper op-ed pieces will ask over the next few days: Is this the greatest nation on earth?

Tony Blair says it is. And he says we know it, and the rest of the world knows it too. It’s a grand statement, unlike anything he’s ever really said before. And unlike anything most of us have said before.

You wonder if he’s been caught up in the euphoria of leaving one of politics’ great offices, knowing there’s more chance of him getting a Sainthood than becoming UN Secretary General.

But you also find yourself wondering if he’s right. We’re not a nation for posturing. “We’re best” almost seems to be an unfashionable, American motto, but it’s not a notion the British are very comfortable with. A Kiwi colleague of mine laughed when he heard Blair say it. No-one in the room defended our PM. But no-one vocally disagreed with him either.

New Zealand and Canada are two countries who always seem to be in with a shout of being a ‘nicer’ nation than Britain. Given the cultural and language similarities, many of us have probably thought for at least ten seconds about moving there for a while.

And you can hardly blame many of them for thinking they’re better than us. Just look at Johnny Foreigner – our ambassador in T-shirt and shorts, wearing sandals with socks on, and drinking a can of Stella in countries where they actually brew their own lager.

Weakening our claim for ‘best nation’ status is our lack of nationalism. The Union Jack has been hijacked by racists, our cultural institutions seem to acknowledge their continental equivalents are superior, and few of us seem to know what it means to be British.

It’s ironic that Blair believes we’re the best, when if most people were asked, they’d probably say it was he who had made it worse. But outside of politics, is there much that is completely and deep-seatedly wrong?

We are, perhaps, the most upwardly mobile nation on the Earth, and yet few of us try to leave, to try bigger and better things than Britain alone can offer. Is that lack of imagination or satisfaction with what we’ve got?

It’s unnaturally patriotic for most Britons to suggest, but is it true? Is ours the greatest nation on earth?

I’m not sure. But I know I wouldn’t want to leave.


- 23 comments by 6 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Luke Parks

    The idea of there being any objective standard for ‘greatest nation on Earth’ is stupid, fatuous, and facile, and as such it fits perfectly with the general Blair rhetoric. I cringed when I heard him say it when I watched him live, and I’ve been cringing every time I heard it ever since.

    10 May 2007, 22:52

  2. No-one in the room defended our PM. But no-one agreed with him either.
    Or do you mean “disagreed”? If not, I’m confused as to what you’re trying to say.

    I agree mostly with Luke. It reminded me of a statement by Louis van Gaal (Dutch football trainer) when Ajax won the Dutch league in 1994 or -5, as he claimed they were the champions of Eindhoven, which would be difficult to prove for an Amsterdam-based club. It’s a void statement in meaning but effective in stirring the crowd and setting or reflecting the tone of a speech. C’est tout.

    10 May 2007, 23:31

  3. Christopher Doidge

    Thorwald – yes I meant ‘disagreed’.

    11 May 2007, 08:53

  4. Matthew Jones

    is there much that is completely and deep-seatedly wrong?

    Can open… worms everywhere.

    Judging by the BBC ‘Have your say’ threads responding to similar questions yesterday, there’s very little right with the country.

    p.s. I am aware that, like any other comments thread on the internet it attracts the crazies.

    11 May 2007, 09:05

  5. Matthew Jones

    That link should be: http://xkcd.com/c202.html

    11 May 2007, 09:06

  6. It’s very easy to say we’re the best at anything, as most people have very little experience of anything else… as in “we have the best legal system in the world”, “the NHS is the best health service in the world” etc. Very few people have done any sort of in depth research really, have they? One assumes that anyone who has experience of many other countries’ legal systems probably has an open arrest warrant with Interpol!

    To say we’re “the best” at anything is just good old blinkered nationalism, and boo sucks to any Johnny Foreigner who says they’re more nationalistic than us.

    11 May 2007, 09:47

  7. Christopher Doidge

    Matthew – I did say “outside of politics” though. I reckon most of the crazies are complaining about politics, whether directly or indirectly.

    Of course this runs into the problem that ‘everything is political’.

    11 May 2007, 10:03

  8. Daniel Wilson Craw

    I too cringed when he said that, but Tim Dowling’s two pence in the Guardian nicely skewers the whingers and the unpatriotic.

    11 May 2007, 20:39

  9. James

    Well I do have experience of other countries’ legal systems and can assure you that Britain has the strongest claim to being the best in the world. Some other Commonwealth countries have systems derived from Britain, of course, but without the vast pool of legal talent that Britain can draw on. The USA has some amazing lawyers but some amazing dross. Western Europe is just hopeless – the Italians with their legendary delays, the Spanish with their riotous corruption, and so on. But don’t take my word for it, look at how much international business the Commercial Court (and transactional lawyers in the City) does each year. The market has spoken, as it were.

    It rather depends on what you like. Other countries have lower crime rates, less pollution and more open spaces – Canada, NZ and Australia for a start – but lack other things Britain has, including travel opportunities (hard for the Brits to understand the importance of this to antipodeans). Switzerland is nice but they don’t play cricket.

    12 May 2007, 22:29

  10. I was quite offended to hear Blair call Britain the Greatest Nation on Earth. I’ll explain why.
    When you claim yourself to be the Greatest you, by default, give the rest a status below yourself. Blair’s claim then automatically means that immigrants are not as great as habitual residents of Great Britain, which is obviously contradictory to the principles of Equality and Diversity.

    16 May 2007, 03:42

  11. Maybe this statistic may point us in the right direction?

    Q: “Taking all things together, would you say you are…”
    A: Happy

    The Brits: 92% (8th in row after a host of European countries)

    Source: Eurobarometer February 2007: link

    16 May 2007, 10:42

  12. James

    re 10: presumably the immigrants agreed with Blair, or they wouldn’t have become immigrants? Presumably the British overseas likewise disagree?

    I think people are far too precious about this sort of thing. Are we really not able to say that Australia is a better place to live than Zimbabwe (where the male life expectancy is 36)? Or that the Swiss government is better than any random military dictatorship? What is a ‘principle of diversity’ anyway? Maybe one of the reasons Blair thinks that Britain is great is because it is a diverse and tolerant society, and doesn’t have the same attitude towards foreigners as the Japanese do, or the caste system of India, or the civil war of Sri Lanka, just to give a couple of examples.

    16 May 2007, 14:07

  13. Colin

    As a British person living and working in Europe

    Yes – I am proud of where I am from and of being British.
    Yes – I think Britain is a great nation and I am lucky to have been born there.

    But is it the greatest nation in the world?
    Is it absolutely greater than all other nations?
    Is Britain even the best nation in Europe?

    Well, that’s just jingoistic nonsense. The talk of dictators, tyrants and deperate politicians.
    Count me out – it gets us nowhere.

    18 May 2007, 11:29

  14. r 12: Let’s not speak for others and stick to things that we can know. As a foreign student in England, I can study here and still disagree with Blair.

    It seems quite clear to me but maybe it’s worth stressing that opinions of nations are not matters of absolutes. They depend on a variety of aspects such as political situation, culture, welfare levels etc. Comparing those would be like comparing apples and pears.

    I reckon we all kind of agree that a concept as large as a “nation” being “the best” or “the greatest” can really be nothing more than a matter of opinion and (not necessarily negative) sentiment, or am I claiming too much here?

    18 May 2007, 18:02

  15. I can’t really add much to this conversation, but allow me to quote George Jean Nathan:

    “patriotism is an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles.”

    It’s a powerful quote which ridicules the very idea of anyone talking about great nations. Certainly you can compare two countries on politics and economy, in the same way that you may compare two people on their beliefs and earning power. But by what means or metrics would you compare a whole nation of diverse people with another nation?

    Britain is my home, and as such I am quite fond of it – however to say it’s the “greatest nation on earth” is like saying that my house is the best house in the street simply because I live there.

    ps. All criticism of my points is invited ;-)

    20 May 2007, 23:28

  16. Anuratha Raman

    The book by Benedict Anderson “The Nation An Imagined Community” and Partha Chatterjee’s intoduction to “The nation and its fragments” serve as useful exegetical entry points to question what a nation was, is and ought to be. There are no two countries which I can think of such as England and India which have so many things in common. But in this commonality there is language, a democracy and systems permeate. However greatness and smallness are defined by interest groups and are historical in their discourse. For the wealthy it may be convenient to define a nation as great while the poor the nation is just a mirage in their quest for day to day survival which may be the same in England as in India.

    21 May 2007, 06:32

  17. James

    Of course it is silly to claim as some sort of fact that a nation is the ‘greatest’. Aside from anything else a nation has so many different aspects and there is no chance of agreement on which are the most important (living space? pollution levels? number of museums? quality of education? Blair was just making a silly if common sort of political rallying point.

    Patriotism has also been described as the last refuge of the scoundrel (Dr Johnson). I’m inclined to agree, but would be equally damning on anti-patriotism, which has long been a characteristic of the British left (or bien pensants, or the trahison des clercs phenomenon to be more particular).

    Anuratha you make a couple of valid points although I have to confess I don’t think this sentence ” There are no two countries which I can think of such as England and India which have so many things in common” makes any sense.

    I partly agree with this statement:

    “For the wealthy it may be convenient to define a nation as great while the poor the nation is just a mirage in their quest for day to day survival which may be the same in England as in India”

    but you could observe that the poor in England have a welfare safety net rather more substantial than that available to most of the poor in India – as well as better education, healthcare, housing etc. I wouldn’t go making jingoistic statements such as “Britain is the greatest” but I do think it is plausible to say “Britain is more egalitarian than India” or that “Britain has better provisions for its poor than India” – it is true, after all.

    21 May 2007, 16:21

  18. Roisin

    I am put right off the idea of patriotism when I think of the BNP party. When the SNP party was the winning party in Scotland in the recent local elections I misheard the news headline and thought the newsreader said BNP and I felt my blood run cold.

    21 May 2007, 16:53

  19. Blair’s comments are fuel for BNP and could incite racial disharmony within Great Britain.

    21 May 2007, 17:56

  20. James

    But why let the BNP – a very small minority – ruin it for everyone else? The Germans have a rather worse recent history with fascism and still have skinheads/neo-nazis, with as much reason to fear them as anyone, yet you don’t see them self-flagellating over the notion of being German. Nor do the Japanese fret about being Japanese – despite their nationalistic history being of a piece with the Germans (mind you, the Japanese immigration policy would do the BNP proud …).

    Being patriotic doesn’t mean joining the BNP, any more than being Muslim means joining Al-Qaeda or being from the Basque country means joining ETA.

    21 May 2007, 20:42

  21. A.V.Raman

    I was not making a claim on overall similarities like systems of work, ethos, language etc. Poverty is an another matter. But what is being said it that definitons of greatness vary amogst various interest groups be it in India or Britain. I admit that I must have rephrased my statement better. But a look at the current state of affairs in the NHS is enough to send shivers down?

    21 May 2007, 22:31

  22. A.V.Raman

    I meant making an overall similarities. Beacuse of the long colonial past and so on. Ernest Gellner and Kedourie are also interesting to examine the mental construction of nations and nationalisms.

    21 May 2007, 22:33

  23. James

    First sentence of 21:

    “I was not making a claim on overall similarities like systems of work, ethos, language etc.”

    First of post 22:

    “I meant making an overall similarities” (sic)

    So, er, what are you saying? Maybe this: “But what is being said it that definitons of greatness vary amogst various interest groups be it in India or Britain.”

    Well, indeed, in every country those that are better off are likely to endorse the system there than those who are less well off, which is uncontroversial although it doesn’t get us very far.

    The NHS is indeed as badly run as any large state enterprise but those in many other countries might wryly observe that at least Britain has an NHS.

    English people seem uncomfortable with patriotism these days. In part that’s possibly because it’s rather unEnglish to crow about oneself. Those north of the border are presumably much happier about that sort of thing since they’ve just given a fair few votes to the SNP, and indeed the SNP is regarded as a mainstream party. The other reason for the lack of English patriotism is the fear of being lumped in with the BNP. But why the BNP should be allowed to claim the right to the Union Flag or the St George’s Cross is anyone’s guess. As I said, no-one suggests that all Muslims are terrorists, so why is it presumed that every English partriot is a member of the BNP?

    22 May 2007, 13:21


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    A couple of weeks ago, in his resignation speech, PM Tony Blair declared the UK was the greatest nation on Earth. And this seems to have stirred quite a debate. In order to agree or disagree with him, though, one has to look into what it means to be the g…

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