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It takes an immigrant to see Britain’s greatness

Children in Brixton waving union jacks during a visit by Queen Mary in 1938. Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty

When I was a schoolboy, says Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times, a woodwork teacher said to me: “Hey, P***, get some paint from the storeroom.” He was quite strict, but my friend still challenged him: “You shouldn’t use that word. It isn’t fair to Matthew.” At a takeaway in Shropshire, an older boy with a cigarette came over and said: “Get the fuck out Gandhi”. But the young girl behind the counter insisted I order, and told the boy if he didn’t like it, she’d call the police. “I wish I could let that girl know how much her courage meant to me.”

Over my life, I have witnessed Britain becoming “more inclusive, more accepting, more whole”. It is why almost every authoritative report shows the UK is the “most tolerant nation in Europe, if not the world”. Yet this is perceived most clearly not by indigenous Brits, but by immigrants like my father. He came here from Pakistan and struggled with racism during a career in the civil service, but he “always loved” his adopted home because he saw the wider context. He’d lived through vicious ethnic violence in India, and knew of Jim Crow segregation in America, apartheid in South Africa and tribal brutality across the Middle East. Britain may have been home to the odd racist idiot, but it was still “one of the most meritocratic and least sectarian places on Earth” – something that is “even more true today”. So here’s an unfashionable thought: “The UK is a great nation and, just now and again (and with a suitable sense of irony), we should celebrate it.”