There is something very comforting about being far away and finding something which reminds you of home. A few years ago I got on a bus in Malaga, arrived in La Linea de la Conception in Cadiz, walked through passport control alone, across the airport strip and into Gibraltar.
Children were running from school in their uniforms past a red post box. The Red Ensign flew from a British naval ship in port and M&S were selling dated classic women’s wear. On this rock in the Mediterranean it felt like home.
When I first proposed to Grace and Annabel I should scribble down my thoughts for them, Grace advised against talking about Brexit. It was a downbeat subject they would prefer to avoid. But following the debacle we are making about leaving Europe, I feel there is something we are missing.
It’s hard to believe but despite the doom laden media, being British and living on an island which once had dominion over a quarter of the earth’s surface still means we have some respect. I know. Bear with me.
How much I had little idea about until my brother recently died abroad. This focused my thoughts on standing alone as a country – and here’s why.
I was never a fan of missionary zeal. We got it wrong even at the height of our powers. An example:
Going out to Africa from Victorian England to spread the Gospel of Christ, Dr David Livingstone a Scottish physician got famously lost and caused some grief for the Welsh journalist Henry Stanley who had been sent to find him by the New York Herald.
The Scottish zealot was eventually found on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on the 10th November 1871 well meant but confusing the natives. He was never going to sell his country abroad and eventually died in Zambia from malaria and internal bleeding brought on by dysentery aged 60 without converting anyone except Sechele, an African chief of the Kwena people of Botswana. He had six children all of which were left behind and his wife Mary died trying to follow him.
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m in bed in Yorkshire. My brother had a heart attack a year ago and was recovered enough to take his lady to Tanzania. As far as I knew they were having fun.
Then I get a phone call in the middle of the night. I’m half awake and the woman on the end of the phone appears to be having a breakdown. I suddenly realise it’s my brother’s partner in Zanzibar screaming.
They’d been having dinner in a local restaurant to celebrate his 60th birthday on Valentine’s night when he’d collapsed and died. She was in a hospital in Dar Es Salaam next to his body in some medical facility weeping, alone and frightened.
There goes the bat signal. What do I do?
The Commonwealth of Nations is a unique British Institution with our Queen as its head. If you have a British passport you may have read the words in it which “affords the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
Tanzania is now a Commonwealth country where we have an Embassy. So at 3am I made a phone call to our Foreign Office in London. Much to my relief they took over.
There are 53 member states of the Commonwealth across the world who were once part of the British Empire and now have their freedom.
Dutifully and with genuine interest Elizabeth shakes each representative’s hand at their meetings and smiles. She’s been doing this for many years and you can tell they genuinely love being connected to Britain.
As a consequence, and as I discovered, if you need their help they are right there.
Stephen’s body was embalmed at the local hospital, then repatriated from Del El Salaam via Zurich to Heathrow and up to Grantham in Lincolnshire where he was cremated. I read his eulogy then took his ashes back to West Yorkshire and interred them personally in a quiet family ceremony.
This was made possible because we are respected across the world. The British are known and in many places are held in a quiet sense of awe.
Yet what do we do?
Thrash, worry and muck about.
We are an island nation who are used to writing the rule book on how to do things. Yes, it’s taking some time and was always going to be this way because we are four nations in one – with an Irish counterpart.
But we will leave and take back control because that is what is required to survive. We’re setting the example.
David Livingstone failed spectacularly. He destroyed his family in doing so. His expeditions were disorganised and few believed him except his loyal servants. His last journal revealed a stubborn determination in the face of suffering. But someone had to design the template.
Yet his courage in perseverance means my brother is now home and I can grieve. He made the connection.
That’s what Britain does and has always done in times of trouble. We find a way.
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