A Sense of Place

Jun 10




Helen Whitten

Posted In


A Sense of Place

There was a feeling last weekend, with the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee, that we came together as a country, putting aside some differences for a brief spell.  That, in our respect and gratitude for a woman who has dedicated her life to the service of us all, in the best way she could, we were drawn together, whether we were monarchists or not.

Yes, of course you can say that she has lived in luxury and been taken care of well by those who work for her. Yet would you wish to be so much in the public eye as she has been, as much as all those who are in the Royal family are? I certainly wouldn’t. I would hate it. The normal things that befall many of us – tragedies, parenting, divorce, conflicts – are all carried out in front of us, at the mercy of the judgement and criticism of the crowd, then chewed over and talked of for years, in the media across the world.

Some people were saying that the flag-waving was old-hat, that it belonged to a past era of British history and was somehow distasteful. I would ask them to look around at other countries and notice that we seem to be far less critical of others taking pride in their nations, than we are of ourselves. The Italians, French, Spanish and many nations wave flags happily on specific days of the year, and the tribal aspect of football or rugby matches is clear for us all to see. I don’t see there is anything wrong with this, unless it becomes so insular that it excludes others or leads to invasions of other territories.

We can surely value a sense of belonging in our land, perhaps the place we were born, but certainly in the place we live. It is a natural human sentiment and rises above politics or monarchy or republicanism. It is about the place, the land, the people who live in it. And that’s what we saw last weekend as communities came together to arrange celebrations, to talk with one another and celebrate together.

For whatever government is in power, we can be proud of and loyal to the country in which we live. There has been so much endless criticism and backbiting in recent years in the UK and I believe it comes from people mistaking the leader of a political party with a country.  One may criticise Boris Johnson and yet still love England. One may have detested President Trump and yet still have a great affection for America. They aren’t the same thing. The Government is temporary, and of course it can shape what is happening in a country, but it is by no means the whole story.

The divisions that have occurred over recent years are more marked than in previous eras and it saddens me. There were more cross-party friendships in times gone by, there was more friendly debate and discussion between people with different opinions, less of the echo chamber that has evolved from social media. I hope we can go back to this as the tendency to think of those who don’t agree with us as ‘bad people’ is unhealthy. It is as bigoted as those we accuse of being bigots. It means we are closed, not willing to open up to new ideas, to admit we might be wrong, or that we might learn something from others, even if we don’t change our opinion on a subject.

In her 1991 Christmas broadcast, the Queen said “Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom.” Wise words and words that lead us to be open and question, rather than close our ears and imagine we know everything in some self-righteous way. A little humility goes a long way.

The endless criticism of the UK is self-destructive. You can be sure that not everyone in Ukraine supported President Zelensky when the war started out in February, yet when their country was under attack by Russia the Ukrainians came together in their pride of place, willing to fight and die for their country. This sense of loyalty goes far deeper than any political party. It’s visceral.

Perhaps we can learn from it and realize that politics is important but ultimately all political parties come and go and, ultimately, also all of them are, in their own ways nonetheless striving for better health, better education and peace for their nations. We can all disagree about the ways to achieve these goals but let’s not fight amongst ourselves so fiercely in the process.

The history of civilization is a history of warfare and brutality. Read about life in this country only a few centuries ago and realize that it was bleak, a very basic way of living, and that we have come a long way, through hard work, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and teamwork. We are an extraordinarily diverse country in comparison to the year of the Coronation, and most of the time we get along pretty well. Walking around London one knows that one is mixing with people from all over the world, with a huge variety of opinions and political loyalties, and yet we get along, enjoying the privilege of living in one of the most civilised countries of the world, in an era of unprecedented comfort and peace. Long may it remain that way.

I think there was a great sense of gratitude to the Queen in the celebrations last weekend, and also a question of whether people would have felt the same if it had been President Johnson or President Starmer. Does an elected president have that same continuity, I question?

Nothing is perfect but gratitude goes a long way to make us happy and cooperative.  Focusing on an appreciation of what we do have, even in the midst of challenges such as inflation and high prices, is far better for our mental health than focusing on lack. We have rather torn ourselves apart in recent years, and the cancel culture in which we live does not help.

As Kenneth Clark said in his programme CivilisationWe can destroy ourselves with cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.” Let’s not do that. As the Queen said in her 2008 Christmas broadcast “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.” Let’s do that now, to the best of our abilities.


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