Public life in Britain is pretty crowded this summer. The jubilee celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth’s sixty years in the job and the forthcoming London Olympics are once in a generation events that seem to strike some genuine chord of national celebration. Add in the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament and you can feel a palpable and cumulative sense of national well-being. In part, this series of national festivities is helping to detract attention from rubbish economic data, looming tough questions about Britain’s role in the European Union and yet another banking scandal.
In fact, banking scandals seem to have become the new national pastime. What a pity there is no way the country can use this proclivity to Olympic advantage: “and the gold medal goes to the GB team for manipulating the inter bank lending rate”. We might even get extra points for our complete failure to learn any lessons from the previous string of scandals. Each time some sharp practice is revealed, we wring our hands, the government appoints yet another review of banking operations and stern words are uttered about rooting out the bad apples and curbing the excesses of the City of London.
But we seem to be a nation of recidivists. After a while the drunken man slips back into the pub, the dieter gobbles down a sneaky cheeseburger and another master of the investment banking universe who thought Gordon Gekko and the movie Wall Street was an instructional video and not a modern day morality tale ends up disgracing one of the few internationally competitive industries we have left.
It is easy to be gloomy. Being British was never meant to be easy and celebrating being British is particularly tricky, not least because most of us regard disaster following triumph to be an immutable law of the human condition in the same way the English soccer team treats a penalty shoot-out: we have done well to get here but it is now all going to go wrong.
It might be the weight of our history that causes this problem. In fact, we probably have too much history for our own good. We see this cycle of pride and fall rolling back through the centuries to the extent it seems to be not just the warp and weave of events but the defining logic of our destiny.
But this past week saw two events in Britain where we had the opportunity to come to terms with our recent past with an elegance and surefootedness rarely seen in political life. In both cases, we had to rely on our vastly experienced 86-year-old monarch rather than our elected representatives.
The first was Queen Elizabeth shaking hands with the second minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness. The meeting was extraordinary because McGuinness was for many years a leader of the IRA, an organisation that would gladly have assassinated the head of the British state had it had the chance. And now it is all suits, smiles and handshakes.
People on all sides react differently. For some who were close to the conflict in Ireland, they see this as a betrayal; others see it as the inevitable consequence of what happens when you opt for a political rather than a military solution. But for others, this is more than just grubby political compromise: it is an iconic moment in bringing about long-term reconciliation. The unthinkable becomes the possible, the objectionable becomes the desirable and the enemy becomes, if not your friend, then at least your partner in turning the page on an unhappy narrative. It was above all else an important reminder not to forget that when we look around the world at all the other apparently unsolvable conflicts, unlikely outcomes are not only possible but more common than we think.
The second event was when the Queen unveiled the memorial in London’s Green Park to the airmen who flew in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command during World War Two. It has taken Britain a long time to build a memorial to this branch of its armed forces given the human cost involved: of the 125,000 that flew, 55,000 died, 8,000 were injured and 10,000 were taken prisoner. These were not good odds for a group of very young men whose average age was 22 and who all volunteered. Public recognition of their courage has been delayed because of the controversy surrounding the huge civilian losses inflicted on German cities in nightly bombing raids by the RAF.
Attempts to memorialise the bravery of bomber crews has been mired in a kind of zero sum game of moral jousting: we cannot acknowledge their valour because what they did caused such horrific suffering to civilians, as if the severity of the consequences lessens the bravery of the actions. What this memorial does – and perhaps only the passage of time allows for this – is to disentangle these two positions allowing for proper acknowledgement of what happened to everybody seventy years ago. The gallantry of the airmen and the suffering of German civilians are both separately worthy of remembrance, even if one was a result of the other.
I hope so, for my father was among the lucky few remaining veterans who survived a full operational tour in Bomber Command, defied those horrible odds and was able to attend last week’s dedication.
Perhaps then behind the façade of the big set piece public celebrations during this rainy British summer are these two lessons in how symbolic public acts can overcome moral ambiguity to help rationalise the past and move on. These two events, one in Belfast one in London, may not seem to hold the answer on how we find a solution in Damascus or find ways for political foes to find common ground in Cairo or Rangoon but they hold some clues about what it takes to play the cards we are dealt sensibly and pragmatically.
But I am not sure I am the best judge of what is really going on in this country. I spend a lot of my time travelling to other people’s nations trying to figure out what is happening – I even get paid for it! Perhaps it is not a good idea to try and do so in your own country. Maybe it is best to remain in a perpetual state of affectionate bewilderment when it comes to home. Time to head for the airport.