The best place from which to see the White Cliffs of Dover is, of course, the sea. That’s why today I saw the pride of Britain from The Spirit of Britain: the name of P&O ferry that took me over to Calais and back. As we pulled away, the deck was full of people photographing the cliffs and watching them recede into the distance without ever disappearing from sight. The coastline of the Pas de Calais, for all its beauty, did not seem to have quite the same effect.
But sometimes what makes us proud does not impress others quite so much, as I was reminded when talking to a German couple. Yes, they have known about the cliffs from childhood, when they learned about them in school. But the only thing the cliffs signified to them was Dover. And they were keen to tell me that Germany also has its white cliffs, on the island of Rugen.
Similarly, the head of the ship’s onboard services, Stéphan, preferred to tell me about the cliffs of his home region of Normandy than to talk about Dover’s more famous ones. Had I also bumped into a resident of the Pas-de-Calais and the island of Mon in Denmark I would have heard from devotees from all the white cliffs in the world outside the United Kingdom. For all their fame, the white cliffs are just another pretty view for those who don’t associate them with home.
All this got me thinking about national pride. Patriotism seems to me to be a potent force that needs to be handled with care if it is to be benign. The key to getting it right can be seen in comparison with family pride. It is not only right that parents should appreciate and love their own children’s attributes more than those of others, those who don’t strike us as cold and distant. But if they come come to believe that their offspring deserve the same kind of attention, appreciation and praise from other people, and so fail to give due credit to other children, their paternal love becomes a competitive, divisive force.
Patriotism is somewhat similar. At its best, it is taking pride in your own country while equally appreciating that others will take just as much pride in theirs. And for that reciprocity to be genuine, it means making an effort to appreciate what other nations have to offer, not just harping on about how great your own is.
I’m not sure that Britons are always good at this. I’m not saying that your average Brit is a bigoted would-be colonialist who can’t stand Johnny foreigner. And the other side of the coin is that there is certainly a strand of liberal Britain which is much more comfortable praising Provence or Tuscany than anywhere in their own country. It’s just that we’re not always as good at appreciating the countries we visit.
The channel crossing has been witness to this over the years. Plenty do relax over a decent French lunch and appreciate the beautiful coastline from the port to Cap Gris Nez and Bolougne-sur-Mer. But too many tend towards the stereotypical full English breakfast on the boat, trip to the hypermarket to stock up on Australian wine, with a stop for moules-frites and a cold beer if you’re lucky. Calais is treated as Dover’s very out of town shopping outlet.
The channel should be a two-way street. After waving the cliffs goodbye we should turn round and look towards the coast of a country that is remarkably close but still very different, knowing that we can truly enjoy la différence for a few hours and return to the home we love soon enough. It is often remarked that you can see France from the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s just a pity more people don’t look a little closer.