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School children often enjoy a learning excercise known as “Fact or Opinion”. It helps them to tell the two apart. A quick example: ‘many roses are red’. That’s a fact, many of them are red. But what about ‘many roses smell very good.” That’s an opinion; some folks would say roses make them sneeze or don’t smell that good.

Blurring the lines between fact and opinion takes place every day, not least of all in the world of politics. Regrettably, the consequences can be detrimental to the welfare of the general public.

What I have in mind is the consequences of believing the foundation myths of a nation. Foundation myths date back to classical times, when the Greeks, Romans, and other societies sought to explain their origins. Gods, demi-gods and mortals abound in these stories. The Americans have their foundation myths embodied in cowboy movies. Britain has Kiplingesque memories of Empire.

And foundation myths remain part and parcel of how politicians think today. The aftermaths of the 2016 referendum in the UK on EU membership, the 2017 General Election, and the 2016 American presidential elections continue to reverberate. Although the eventual consequences of these events cannot be predicted, I think there is a disconcerting pattern.

In both countries, there has been a surge in nostalgia for a past that never was. This is naïve but understandable. It’s easy to say that things are not what they used to be. Thankfully, that’s true. Who wants a return to Victorian standards of public sanitation or health care?

The penchant for believing in foundation myths in both the UK and the USA contributes to a destructive fragmentation of society. Immigration is a case in point. Both countries have benefitted enormously from waves of immigration over the centuries and today is not different. A ‘Noah’s Ark’ attitude to immigration is simplistic.

In closing, on the topic of foundation myths, may I point out that there is no ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the USA. The American public, long since moved away from the 13 colonies on its Atlantic shores and now comprising a multi-racial, multi-cultural behemoth, has no particular interest in the UK. Nor does it need to have one.

For the good of both countries, socially and commercially, public policies need to set aside wistful thoughts of what never was and instead concentrate on what is and what can be achieved in a competitive world where past glories, real or imagined, are irrelevant.

William G Prast
January 2020

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