No country has a thorough understanding of how other countries regard it. However frequent and wide-ranging the links and transactions between the UK and even its closest trading partners, Britons don’t have the perspective to enable them to see ourselves through others’ eyes. Unless you live abroad, of course.
Britain and Ethiopia
For 17 years I was a member of the British Council, promoting the UK in several other countries. I was in Ethiopia running the British library in Addis Ababa in 1977, the year when that beautiful country began sliding into the abyss. All over the great city, workers’ ward committees or soviets, called kebelewoch, were set up in answer to the call of the ruling dergue or junta led by Colonel Mengistu. My chief assistant N was co-opted onto his
local kebele and soon became its chair. All this despite the fact that his neighbours knew full well he worked for us, the British. As he said to me, “Oh they don’t mind about that…”
One day he was late coming in. When he appeared after an hour or two he said his left arm ached. I expressed concern, but he chuckled and said he had been leading his committee to a mass rally and they had all had brandish their left arms and shout continually, amongst other things, “Down with Britain!” This was, however, not an altogether popular slogan; N had overheard two or three workers murmur, perhaps jokingly, “We’d better ease up else the Brits will come and drop an atom bomb on us!”
There are numerous other examples of this misperceiving of us over the years. I will select just a handful. In two countries strangers have snarled at me, “It’s all your fault!” In Jordan in 1988 the issue was the Palestinian crisis, which Jordanians thought we had caused; in South Africa in 1993 it was the perceived failure by the UK to stop the advent of majority rule following the release of Nelson Mandela (whom I met before he became president).
A Sudanese gentleman told me, as we sat in his Eden-like garden, that the British would always “divide and rule” – it was their nature and it meant we could never be trusted. And a Sicilian aristocrat said to me kindly (in 1986), “What the UK needs is a revolution.”
This whole issue, of course, is infested and so undermined by the all-too-easy resort to stereotypes and clichés. How could it be otherwise? Even the French military attaché who was brought up in England and spoke unaccented Queen’s English was still French, seeing a little bit of Albion perfide in what we are and do, however much he tried. We can never know another country well enough to say we understand it totally; or, come to that our own: “What do they know of England, who only England know?”
So what do They think of Us? In general they think we are honourable with a great past. Most foreigners I’ve met are fascinated by the pomp and circumstance and could not hear enough of the late Princess of Wales. They understand how important democracy is to us, but they can’t understand our trust in the system. I was once asked whether it would be possible for me to bribe an English judge; I was stupefied by the question.
They know we can be violent if we want to be, but not like the US is violent. They don’t always admire British taciturnity and mildness and they think we’re hypocritical and arrogant. Some think we’re still instintively antisemitic and ‘pro-Arab’, but not many Arabs think that now.
But they are all prepared to bank with us (every Somali pirate with a mobile has his London bank on speed-dial) and send their children to our colleges. If, twenty years ago, you had wanted to buy a fake passport in Beirut, Swiss ones were the most expensive, followed by US ones and then British passports. And I haven’t even mentioned pop culture…
They like us really. In Johannesburg there’s a building with a plaque from reading, “opened by HM Elizabeth II Queen of South Africa.” When South Africa became a republic in 1961, they didn’t bother to take it down. And when the dergue appointed an obscure monk to head the Ethiopian Coptic Church, an Ethiopian friend huffed, “the government appointing the head of the church! Whoever heard of such a thing? It would never happen in England!” I cleared my throat.
“Well now”, I said, “that’s not entirely the case…”