Thursday, 15 September 2016

Polish residents, Polish police, in Britain

It’s curious to read that two Polish police are being deployed in each of London and Harlow, the latter the scene of a recent fatal attack on a Polish resident which also injured another.

Polish police join an English colleague on patrol in Harlow
The Poles have become the biggest single group of foreign-born residents in Britain. In the atmosphere of heightened xenophobia, which I assume was present but pent-up before the Brexit vote but has been released by it, Poles have become the major target of the increased wave of hate violence.

On a couple of occasions recently I’ve been accused of displaying insufficient pride in my country. I’d have no difficulty pleading guilty to the offence if I thought it was one. I have a hard time, however, thinking of patriotism, notoriously described by Samuel Johnson as the last refuge of the scoundrel, as a virtue.

What, after all, am I supposed to feel proud about? I take pleasure in the great results won by British athletes at the Paralympics, feeling a bond with my compatriots. But pride? I didn’t contribute to their success except indirectly and at tiny scale through taxes. The achievement was theirs, not mine; to take pride in it feels terribly like claiming undeserved credit.

In any case, it’s not as though my country’s only achievements are matters of pleasure. Am I supposed also to feel pride over our forces’ involvement in Iraq? Our role in the badly-judged and ill-fated intervention in Libya? Or, looking at other areas, in Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to ban literature about homosexuality from our classrooms? David Cameron’s sustained assault on the miserly support we provide to the poor and ill? The aversion towards foreigners that inspired Brexit and the murder in Harlow?

Perhaps a small anecdote will explain why I don’t go along with these feelings.

For our first two years where we currently live, we were cursed with a neighbour from hell. She would hold all night parties five or six times a month, apparently drug-fuelled events which would run from midnight until midday, where festivities followed a constantly repeated pattern: raucous laughter and merry shouting, followed by karaoke singing at volume, followed by tearful recriminations and fighting interspersed with cursing and the noise of breaking crockery; after a brief pause, the cycle would start again with the laughter and shouting.

The police, starved of resources, would not assist. That’s in spite of one police employee telling me down the phone, one night at 2:00 am, “Oh, my God! I can hear her from here!”

It took two years to get her out of the place, but we and the neighbours on the other side eventually managed it by dint of constant complaints and phone calls to the landlord and the agent. In the meantime, she’d broken some of our belongings and stolen others, but we felt that was a small price to pay.

Since then, we’ve had a new family next door who never disturb us, for whom we accept packages and who accept packages for us, with whom we exchange friendly greetings when we meet. An extraordinary relief. A way of re-establishing our belief in the inherent decency of people.

The new neighbours are Polish. The old one was English.

Does that illustrate why I don’t go along with appeals to patriotism? And above all reject popular prejudice against Poles?

There may be a new hope for all of us in the arrival of Polish police in Britain. Just as it was a blessing to replace a foul English neighbour by likeable Polish ones, maybe we could benefit from more Polish policemen too – replacing the hopeless English ones who wouldn’t come out when we needed support against the ghastly Englishwoman next door.

In the meantime, anything that helps stop the kind of xenophobic violence that led to the Harlow murder has to be welcome.

Even if, as I suspect, the Polish police presence is just a gimmick for the moment.


Anonymous said...

I have lost hope, no belief or pride in your nation. I once lived in Harlow as a young man in my first job when it had new town status and even then with high employment and industry it wasn't exactly a desirable place, full of failed and displaced individuals probably exactly what it was designed for. I also have a current neighbour from hell and am about to move to escape the demon witch. But none of its about nationality it's about unlucky statistics, pride is how we change the risk and improve the odds, a bit of pride and aspiration rather than the attitude of mediocrity and OK will do.

David Beeson said...

Change is certainly necessary. But it won't come from retreating into ourselves and isolation. You present pride of nation as a positive force for progress, and I'm sure it can be that, so I respect your view of it. Sadly, though, in many people – the majority, I'd say – that pride is a justification for putting up walls and looking down on others. In that manifestation it contributes to the problem not the solution. That's why I'm so wary of it.

Anonymous said...

I respect your view, but why oh why do you find it so so negative to have any positive state of mind about your own nation. As I said I find it unbelievably sad that you fail to be able to find positivity in pride it's almost as if you want it to fail and feel that's a sort of we are all the same result.

David Beeson said...

Pride strikes me as the wrong word. I'm proud of certain achievements of mine, but they're mine. But I have extremely positive feelings (though not pride, as I did nothing to make them possible) about Shakespeare or Austen, about the British jurists who wrote the European Convention on Human Rights, about Attlee's government setting up the NHS or Wilson's ending the prohibition of homosexuality or creating the Open University. I love York Minster or the Millennium Bridge or the vista from bridge to bridge down the Clyde. I am bowled over by Malham Tarn or the Dorset Coast. I'm full of admiration for the tolerance that allowed Sikh policemen to wear turbans instead of helmets and allowed us to bring in gay marriage with very little opposition.

I have many positive feelings about many aspects of my country.

That doesn't turn me, however, into some kind of "my-country-right-or-wrong" patriot. I don't like Britain's rejection now of the very Convention on Human Rights its jurists wrote. I don't like the torture of Kenyan freedom fighters and I don't like the selling of weapons to Saudi to bomb Yemeni civilians. Above all, I don't like the trend today that reverses the tolerance of the past: the tarring of all Muslims as potential terrorists or the xenophobia towards Poles. That xenophobia, by the way, it seems to me is the principal motivation for Brexit, and I feel despair at Britain's desire, so strong at the moment, to retreat into itself instead of remaining open to the world, above all because I believe it's as mature and likely to be as effective a step as a child pulling the blankets over his head to avoid a threat.

In short, I try to be dispassionate about my country, loving certain things, abhorring others. Because I think my country's a mixture, sometimes frankly a mess. Just like all the other countries.