Picture the scene: a vibrant cultural marketplace. From Tunisia, to Kenya to Pakistan, stalls are draped in their national flag and stall-holders are wearing their national dress, brimming with pride at the opportunity to showcase their history and their culture.
Then your eye catches a group of people awkwardly huddled in front of five different flags and a sad, sparse display. The sign reads: the United Kingdom.
As Future Leaders Connect progresses, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this moment and our reluctance to join in this national celebration.
Cultural uncertainty is part of British national identity. In many ways, the five flags says it all: are we one nation are are we four? And, to put it lightly, unity across our four nations is a stubborn challenge. In recent years, we’ve had two divisive referendums on national identity and one devolved nation is eighteen months into a political impasse.
I also carry personal guilt at our colonial history. Not only is division part of our domestic history, in a room surrounded by young and dynamic nations from the Global South, it somehow doesn’t feel right to celebrate Britishness.
Add to this the British pastime of self-deprecation and we’re really screwed…
Yet, many of the countries proudly displaying their heritage have experienced extreme division and internal conflict, which persists today.
And we’re standing in a room in Cambridge, on a programme hosted by the British Council; the very reason these brilliant leaders are here is because of the UK and what we have to offer.
So, what can we learn from them?
These leaders have challenged me to feel more proud of the UK. And there is much about Future Leaders Connect to inspire this.
The course is brilliant. Our teachers are dynamic, inspiring and generous. Our political speakers, from Lord Wilson to Lord McConnell, are humble, thoughtful and full of wisdom and integrity. My fellow students are so excited to travel to London and Parliament on Monday. And they are energetically following our football teams and television shows – and eager to attend our universities.
Both ‘Global Britain’ and the concept of soft power are often denigrated as meaningless slogans and statements. This week has brought home that, thanks to this cultural capital, they could be so much more.
But to realise this, we must first identify what we are proud of so we can ensure it endures. Neither national embarrassment nor blind patriotism is the answer.
Tolerance and diversity; art, culture and academic pursuit; democracy, internationalism and the rule of law; there is much to celebrate about the UK – and so much that we, as British citizens, have benefited from.
It is incumbent on the next generation to embrace this and to believe in our capacity to deliver a better country and a better world.
This isn’t about draping ourselves in the Union Jack. And it cannot be about forgetting our role in the crimes of the past, nor failing to challenge the persistent injustices that blight our four nations. But it is about identifying what we are proud of, so we fight for it.
The best leaders are humble. They are aware of their deficiencies and they learn from their mistakes. They are eager to listen to others and to learn from the world around them. But they are not bashful. They believe in themselves and their countries.
Let us follow the lead of my proud colleagues, and find this balance for Britain.