I’ve read a lot of shitty editorial over the years (and penned a fair whack of it myself) but it’s difficult to top the insipid, self-contratulatory tripe that Fraser Nelson posted on The Spectator this Sunday.
“What it is to be British” was ostensibly a celebration of The Proms; but rapidly deteriorated into something else entirely – a kind of disjointed tribute to a utopian Britain that bears very little resemblance to what the UK’s actually like.
“[The] British are, and always have been, more at ease with foreigners [than Americans],” he writes, which is utterly laughable to anybody who’s ever lived here, or to my American pals who've watched the adorably xenophobic banter on Top Gear.
“There is something inherently understated about being British,” he adds; which immediately makes me think back to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when England fans burned a German flag in Leicester Square and trashed a Haagen Daz restaurant. Hardly very understated ways to support your national team.
But the statement that really got my goat was this one:
“Brits are, I firmly believe, the most tolerant people on earth.”
At this point, you have to start wondering which Britain this so-called journalist actually lives in, because it sure as hell doesn’t sound much like the Britain I know.
Here’s the land in which people get stabbed or driven out of town for having ginger hair, and in which British religious extremists blow themselves up in the Underground.
He writes “we're the only country in Europe to manage mass immigration without a far-right party in parliament or with any sizeable share of the vote” while blithely ignoring the fact that we’re also one of the only Western countries that has mainstream white supremacist party on the polls (or did he miss the British Nationalist Party’s delightful party political broadcasts this May?)
We British are masterful at being politically correct – and at vilifying anybody who refuses to be similarly so – but Fraser Nelson seems to have mistaken that rather repressive form of social fascism for ‘tolerance’, when it is actually very far from.
Tolerance is an open minded, inclusive attitude towards those who are different from the norm. Political correctness, on the other hand, is merely social conditioning and behavioral policing, enforced by the threat of polite society ostracizing you.
If you want a demonstration of Britain’s true character, just take away that expectation of political correctness and you’ll see quite how mean-spirited and vicious we can be.
A case in point? The fact that I spent four years living in the UK and was guaranteed at least one cat-call of “Ginger” from across the street every single day, and was accosted and confronted in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and shops for having red hair on a regular basis.
That’s only my experience, and I’ll admit I’ve got a big ol’ chip on my shoulder as a result of it. However, there’s ample proof to support the theory that Brits just aren’t in the running for a ‘most tolerant people on Earth’ award any time soon.
For all our politically-correct pretentions, most Brits will admit that there’s a judgmental streak in our character that simply doesn’t exist in other places.
For instance, it’s only in Britain that George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote rings true: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
As soon as a Brit reveals his accent, he’s immediately pigeonholed by his audience (For instance, I’ve always lived with the mantle of ‘posh public school boy’ despite attending a comprehensive in Devonshire.)
Here in America – a land so many Brits are keen to dismiss as intolerant – there are far fewer social barriers than you might imagine. For example, there isn’t the insipid obsession with class that there is in the UK. Joe the Plumber can mingle with a Kennedy without either feeling insecure; as the measure of pride is a hard day’s work; not necessarily how much you get paid for it.
In Britain, you’re expected to know your place in the social hierarchy (a concept Prince Charles himself inopportunely admitted supporting) and never rise above it. Brits cling to some deluded sense of class identity even though such concepts have lost all relevance in British society.
(Working in radio, I never had to look far to find some presenter with a northern accent celebrating his ‘working class’ roots despite the fact he read the traffic and travel on a regional FM station - which is not exactly a working class occupation.)
No, Britain is not the most tolerant nation on earth.
In fact, scratch the surface and a large proportion of the country is revealed to be stunningly intolerant.
We don’t like anything different and are quick to hammer down any nail that stands taller than the others. In Britain, we’re only oh-so-fucking tolerant as long as you abide by our expectations.
This probably explains a number of things in my life – why the majority of my British friends tend to be the types who fall outside popular, polite society – gays, eccentrics, expatriates and entrepreneurs. Like me, with my ginger hair, they’ve tended to be the butt of British intolerance and are considerably more open-minded to other’s oddities as a result.
It’s also probably the reason why I’m so happy here in America.
For all of America’s faults – and open intolerance towards gays and immigrants are two of the biggest – the average American judges somebody by what they do and say, and not what accent they have or what color their hair is.
I can be deliciously, deliriously eccentric here in the states and the worst I get is an amused, accepting smile. I’m able to be myself in the ‘land of the free’ to an extent I never could back in Britain.
To my mind, that’s powerful evidence that Fraser Nelson didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote “Brits are, I firmly believe, the most tolerant people on earth.”
But then again, if his impression of what British society is like matches what he wrote, perhaps there's an awful lot Mr. Nelson doesn't know about.