Living in a grown-up country. Spoiler alert: it’s not the UK…

Composite image by Anthea Bareham

When we arrived in Spain recently, we commented that it felt reassuring to be arriving in a ‘grown-up country’. It struck us as soon as we started our drive south, immediately becoming aware of the fact that everyone was wearing face-masks, as required in indoor public places; a high number of people show the same consideration and respect for others in outdoor public spaces. A previous article has detailed the other successes of the Spanish health service in dealing with Covid-19. A ‘grown-up country’, indeed.

Covid: all done and dusted, isn’t it?

Hardly surprising that we should feel this, given the erratic way that the pandemic has been and is being ‘managed’ in the UK. My wife had been horrified to receive a letter recently from the Health Secretary: she had been told to ‘shield’ as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ for the last eighteen months, but the recent letter from Sajid Javid told her that “she no longer needs to shield”, implying that life is now back to normal.

Try telling that to the 50,000+ people newly-infected with coronavirus every day, not to mention the hundred+ deaths which continue to occur on a daily basis…written off as ‘mercifully low’ by the same glib minister.

Try telling that to the families of the many thousands suffering from long Covid. Try telling that to our children and grandchildren, terrified of catching a disease which they might then pass on to ‘us oldies’, and crucially to my immuno-compromised wife. I have six grandchildren in UK schools, and a teacher daughter. All have needed PCR tests at least once already after being exposed to possible infection; it was upsetting to discover last Friday in a video chat session with our six-year-old granddaughter that she had needed a PCR test after her ballet teacher had tested positive. It’s that close… All this is having a detrimental effect on their education, their confidence and their mental health. I am incensed at the UK government’s gross negligence. By contrast, yes, Spain is a country which is behaving in an adult way in the face of this ongoing health crisis.

The reign in Spain…

Screenshot from El Mundo

And yet, life carries on in as normal a way as possible, thanks to a mix of pragmatism and planning. It might seem trivial to mention this, but a good example is the fact that the authorities in Madrid have just allowed a return to discos …but with certain restrictions: mask-wearing and social distancing, and also limitations as to where and what the customers can drink. What is amazing about all this is the high degree of compliance, surprising for a nation not famed for obeying rules. Could it be to do with the clear messaging from on high, and the good example shown by so many, including the Spanish royal family? This evening we noticed that all members of the audience in a TV game show were wearing masks! Contrast this with the government benches in the House of Commons – not a mask in sight!

Spanish Covid measures: compilation of the author’s images by Anthea Bareham

World-beating denial!

As things stand, the UK is a leader, at least in Europe, in terms of daily Covid-19 infection rates and deaths, and is fifth in the world: world-beating indeed. Worse, not only is our government in denial and not taking appropriate action based on so many lessons learnt the hard way, but most of the media is not talking about this, or is at best playing its cynical part in the gaslighting, as in the now-notorious BBC article “Covid: The UK is Europe’s virus hotspot – does it matter?”. For the correct perspective on our perilous plight, Emma Monk’s evaluation in her up-to-the-minute article in West Country Voices makes it clear: “Yes, it bloody-well does matter. A great deal!”

What is a ‘grown-up country’?

So, what do I mean by a grown-up country? It is a country which organises most aspects of its life and activity well and sensibly. For a citizen of the 21st century, it is a country which is comfortable to live in: one’s needs, material, emotional, spiritual or whatever, are catered for, and it is a society in which, for the most part, people live in peace and harmony. OK, so Spain has its divisions and, in particular, ongoing regional conflicts, but these are not omnipresent across the whole country. There are, of course, social problems, and like any modern country, it seems, there are political scandals and examples of corruption. However, where EU membership is concerned, there is unity of purpose; indeed there is still an awareness of how being allowed to participate in the European project in 1986 gave the seal of approval back then to Spain’s fledgling, newly re-established democracy.

Grown-up Spain

There are two further major developments worthy of mention under the heading of ‘grown-up country’: first, in 1992, Spain celebrated the 500th anniversary of its ‘discovery’ of the Americas, (the first step in building its huge empire…) but also acknowledged and apologised for its past sins. In 1492, as well as its ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Spain also completed its recovery of territorial integrity by expelling many thousands of Muslims and Jews. In 1992, King Juan Carlos apologised for this huge act of injustice, and in an act known as Sefarad ’92, Spain welcomed back the descendants of Sephardic Jews, who had scattered afar from Asia Minor to England. A Jewish family from London brought with them the key to the house their ancestors had been forced to abandon in the Casco Viejo (old quarter) of Toledo; they found the house… and the key still fitted the lock.

Screenshot from RTVE

As for migrants, Spain recognised decades ago that its incredibly low birth-rate was distorting its demographic balance: too many older folk, and not enough younger people to sustain the nation’s requirement for labour. There was, by now, a steady stream of migrants – both legal and illegal – from North Africa and South America, many of whom ended up working in construction, or in the incredibly hot greenhouses in southern Spain which feed northern European supermarkets. (By the way, Ms Patel, Spain has experienced the problems of illegal immigration for many decades, and in much larger numbers…). By and large, desperate people trying to get to Spain are treated humanely. Instead of introducing draconian immigration laws, Spain realised that it actually needed these new people. In the year 2000, the Ley de Extranjería introduced structures to allow non-EU migrants to settle and work in Spain, granting them appropriate rights and freedoms.

Compare and contrast that with a country which has ejected many citizens of the ‘club’ to which it belonged until recently, and whose rules and laws it helped to shape; a country which has blamed migrants for every social problem in the book, placed huge obstacles in the path of others aspiring to work and live in that country, and made those remaining feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. And which then, confronted with the self-imposed sudden shortage of skilled workers in so many sectors, and the consequent supply problems and social care issues, has the arrogance and effrontery to blame the EU, road hauliers, anyone but themselves – and even British women for not producing enough children!

This drastic error could have been avoided had recent governments heeded the warnings described in John D Turner’s recent West Country Voices article describing the UK’s demographic time-bomb. A ‘grown-up country’ would have done so, but not one in which an ambitious and unprincipled political elite saw an opportunity to generate and exploit xenophobia to achieve power.

Civil War

Spain in the EU; Creative Commons

One final element of comparison between Spain and the UK: centuries of conflict and injustice led to the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. In turn that produced 36 years of dictatorship. Spain was a divided country for decades, and when it came, its democracy was hard-won. Of course, there are still political divisions, but there is undoubtedly a consensus that there can never be a return to civil conflict and the divisions which both caused it and were produced by it. Membership of the European club gave democratic Spain the seal of approval, so it is much appreciated. That is a ‘grown-up’ attitude.

The Brexit divide: a civil war?

By contrast, the nonsense which is Brexit has caused unprecedented division in UK society. Maybe there is an amorphous mass in the middle, but ardent Brexiters still abound, and they are particularly prominent in the political sphere. There are signs that some of these are beginning to ‘see the light’, notably a recent interviewee of James O’Brien on LBC. Then there are the many millions who voted Remain, and whose interests and opinions have been totally ignored: Johnson’s Brexit government has ridden roughshod over them as if 17.4 million people had never existed, never mind the 30 million or so British citizens who did not vote either way for whatever reason.

A huge number of us have spent the last five years in a sort of Brexit stupor – feeling angry, cheated and indignant at the dishonesty of the process which led to it; the referendum itself, the way its outcome was imposed on our country without questioning its status as an ‘advisory referendum’; the lies and dodgy practices which produced the result; its negative effect on so many people we know and love, and even worse, that it brought into power an unprincipled monster and his retinue, enabling them totally to mismanage the country during a time of pandemic and economic crisis. Perhaps even worse: to wreck systematically all that was good about British society and which earned our country its reputation around the world: of honesty, integrity, good humour and honour… and common sense! Indeed, the Spanish press now talks of how Johnson, behaving towards the EU like a spoilt and petulant child, is wrecking the reputation of our country.

No cardboard cutouts here! Spoilt for choice in a Spanish supermarket. Photo by the author

Three very recent examples of this here in Spain: a few days ago, on a bike-ride, we got talking to a Spanish couple who were walking along the track. It transpired that they were both teachers; they expressed surprise and puzzlement at how on earth the UK has brought upon itself such self-immolation. On Tuesday morning, Carlos, who runs the local gym, spoke of seeing video news of our empty supermarket shelves, skills shortages and queues for fuel: he too was amazed and confused by our predicament. Both parties expressed pity for us, as citizens of such a misguided country. Then yesterday evening I chatted to a builder neighbour who was loading his truck ready to set off for work at dawn today. I was amazed at his quite intimate knowledge of current affairs in the UK – just as amazed as he is at the stupidity of Brexit and the negligent way our government is handling Covid-19. By the way, N Farage and co, southern Europeans are not lazy, feckless spongers on EU funds; the builders and agricultural workers who make up the population of this village set off for work just before dawn, and come home at dusk, putting in more hours and effort in one day than  Farage and many UK politicians do in a year.

Pride or patriotism?

In view of all this, can one be proud to be British? Difficult at the moment. Patriotic? Some would say that one cannot oppose Brexit and be patriotic at the same time. I would beg to differ. Patriotism means wanting the best for one’s country and being prepared to fight for it in whatever way one can. After all, it is not just the country in which one lives one’s life, but also the home of one’s loved ones – parents, children, grandchildren, and as-yet unborn progeny in the future.

A patriot just wants the best for all of them, and a country seemingly incapable of behaving in a grown-up way is not and never will be what’s best.