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“The English the English the English are best, I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest”. It seems that the spirit of Flanders and Swann's 'Song of Patriotic Prejudice' took possession of David Cameron during the G20 meeting in St Petersburg last week. It is a pity he was not capable of sharing its tongue-in-cheek take on national braggadocio.
The playground-level repartee began when a Russian official was reported as saying that the UK was “just a small island” to whom “no-one pays any attention”.
Feelings were running high over international responses to possible missile strikes on Syria and, presumably recognising this, President Putin's spokesman said that he did not know the source of the remark, but emphasised that it did not come from him. With such important matters at stake, it could have been considered wise to have passed over this low-level manifestation of irritation.
But David Cameron reached immediately for his plastic trumpet, and in doing so, not only made himself appear ridiculous, but highlighted much of what is so destructive about national responses predicated on a narrow view of status rather than on morality.
There were ludicrous claims about sport and inventiveness: “Britain...has invented most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world”; braggart exclusivity on the arts which appeared to ignore the creative genius of other cultures – and a creepy populist lack of discernment which placed One Direction alongside Elgar.
But perhaps the most disturbing remark among amongst all this bombast, was the statement of a fact which is beyond dispute but not beyond questioning as to relevancy: “Britain has.. the sixth-largest economy; the fourth best-funded military”. It is a common delusion that spending vast amounts of money on weaponry and military forces demands respect and confers authority with a right to intervene forcibly in the complex conflicts of other nations. And its attendant delusion is that those nations who choose a different course are legitimate targets for condescension and sneering.
During Radio 4's Any Questions last week, Conservative MP Nick Boles, taking this line, delivered himself of the view that if the UK failed to support and participate in firing missiles into a country already awash in blood and misery, it would be acting like “Switzerland by the sea”.
So long as we are willing to permit this adolescent “mine's bigger than yours” swagger to inform our international policy, we are unlikely to embrace a world view which demands nuance and the recognition of the cultural, emotional and spiritual sensitivities of others.
There can be no peace without such recognition. I am happy to count myself a small islander, but never a little Englander.
* More on Syria from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/syria
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet