Independent on Sunday, 3 June 2012
A couple of days ago, I spotted an open-topped sports car which was flying the Union Jack. It shot past at a fair old lick, and I wondered whether the driver had suddenly noticed the complete absence of demonstrative patriotism in my street. I’m told there are events – one this weekend, another at the end of next month – which are supposed to make us glad to be British. But what on earth has that got to do with flags, torches, medals, pomp and ceremony?
I’ve always considered myself fortunate to have been born in this country, in the second half of the 20th century. Few women have enjoyed as much freedom as I have, and they still don’t in many parts of the world; girls aren’t even allowed to go to school in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, and a woman has just been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan. Hanging is barbarous enough: I’m just old enough to remember this country’s final executions, and one of the many things I love about the UK is the fact that it no longer operates the death penalty. Under the last Labour government, the Foreign Office actively campaigned to persuade other countries to abolish capital punishment; the FCO also set up a committee, which I sat on for a couple of years, to look at ways of promoting free expression around the world.
A commitment to human rights and equality is what being British means to me. I’m thrilled that I live in a society where gay people are able to celebrate their love for each other in civil partnerships, and I hope one day soon they’ll be free to marry. I believe civil partnerships should be open to heterosexuals – a lot of us aren’t keen on marriage – but at least we’ve got rid of the shame that used to attach to having sex outside marriage. And women in this country don’t have to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or risk illegal abortions, as they do in Poland and Chile.
None of this would have happened without a successful challenge to the influence of religion, and one of the things I cherish most about the UK is that it’s a (mostly) secular society. We’ve still got an established church, which is an anachronism, but most of us don’t live in fear of God, hellfire or interference from clerics. One of the principles I’d go to the wall for is secular law, and the protection it offers to women and minorities.
I’ve never felt nostalgia for George Orwell’s England of old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the morning mist, although I can see why it appealed to John Major. I’ve never voted Conservative in my life and what I like about this country is its modernity, imperfect though it is in some respects. I’m proud that the UK was a prime mover in setting up the International Criminal Court, and that British governments intervened on humanitarian grounds in dreadful conflicts in Sierra Leone and Libya.
I didn’t have to give much thought to turning down an MBE when it was offered a few years ago. In the last few days, I’ve been driven nuts by constant interviews with people who’ve turned out to see an Olympic torch or once shook hands with Princess Anne. I love my country, but I don’t need to prove it with flags, uniforms and bunting.