The sun is shining on the white cliffs along the south coast of England, and a sailing club is launching boats into the sea. The wind picks up and one or two dinghies capsize, but the club is well organised. It is safe at sea here because the club’s motor boats patrol the area to help sailors who get into difficulty.
The English Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and safety is a top priority. There is a lifeboat station less than a kilometre away, and at weekends Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) crews train in the sea, roaring up and down the coast, practising their drills and life-saving rescues.
In Scotland this week they rescued a kayaker who had fallen and broken her hip. The Shoreham crew saved a fisherman whose boat sank. And the most wonderful part is that RNLI crews are not paid. They are volunteers, risking their lives to save others. The RNLI is a charity founded in 1824, a life-saving service entirely dependent on goodwill and donations. How uncontroversial, you might think, to celebrate this, the best of British traditions.
But now the RNLI is mired in a political row started by a veteran right wing politician, Nigel Farage, formerly a Member of the European parliament for some 20 years. Mr Farage’s big political success was to push Britain into leaving the EU through his UK Independence Party and later the Brexit party.
He is an ultra-nationalist, draped in the British flag, at times dressing in Union Jack ties, socks and even flag-bearing shoes, and filmed singing supposedly patriotic songs, while embroiling himself in various anti-immigrant stunts. Now Mr Farage has attacked the RNLI for acting as what he calls a “migrant taxi service”. Record numbers of migrants have set out in small boats from France this summer, landing on the Kent coast to claim asylum. Migrants typically pay around €3000 each to people-traffickers and are crammed into small unseaworthy vessels as they cross 50 kilometres from the French port of Calais.
Inevitably some boats leak and start to sink. RNLI volunteers pick up those in distress and bring them to safety. They do not ask for passports, money or anything else. They do not ask if those in trouble are British or from some other part of the world and they do not care about the colour of a person’s skin. These are risky humanitarian encounters, not a “taxi service”. But Mr Farage now has a TV show on an obscure and ailing channel. Stirring controversy to seek publicity might be his most significant talent. Why else would anyone wear the UK’s national flag on their shoes?
Mr Farage’s attack on the RNLI certainly earned him news headlines but it has backfired. Donations to our brave lifeboat crews have skyrocketed – £200,000 in just one day or about 30 times the average normal donation.
Even so, the Farage brand of toxic nationalism has been echoed on radio talk shows by angry callers who seem to think watching other human beings drown at sea is a price worth paying to keep migrants from landing in England.
Yet there is something fundamentally irrational about all this pseudo-patriotic posturing. Nigel Farage and his tribe of followers constantly lecture the world about how they love Britain, yet they clearly hate the reality of the country they claim to adore.
Modern Britain is multi-cultural, mostly tolerant, charitable and welcoming. Yet Mr Farage and his friends see only enemies. Some attack the racially diverse England football team for “taking the knee”. They routinely loathe truly great British institutions beyond the RNLI. They despise the BBC and even attack that other great British invention, the National Trust. The Trust – which has more than five million members – preserves England’s heritage and stately homes, and is now re-evaluating its buildings to check for historic connections to the slave trade. In hating our finest institutions, therefore, Mr Farage is in love only with a non-existent imagined Britain rooted in the 1950s. That is not patriotism. It is a nostalgic delusion.
The RNLI row has shown how the best of Britain can win the cultural struggle against the worst. RNLI volunteers will still be saving lives when Mr Farage and his culture warriors are consigned to history. And here I should declare a bias. A local hardware store accepts book donations and sells the used books for £1 each. All the money they raise is given to Kent lifeboat volunteers. My children buy books from this store. Their pounds support the RNLI. I support the RNLI. Britain supports the RNLI.
Perhaps one day we will discover a lifeboat capable of rescuing some of our fellow citizens from drowning in their own narrow-minded nastiness. After all, for some people, a man wearing Union Jack shoes and singing "Rule, Britannia" is considered to be a sage. And given that, rescuing these befuddled patriots from their sea of nostalgia will not be easy.