By Boris Johnson
There is a sense in which the British cemetery in Kabul is a monument to the human spirit.
A triumph of hope over experience and as I stood there last Saturday on a chilly and foggy morning I felt the eerie pathos of the place.
It was here in 1842 that the Victorian catastrophist William Elphinstone was driven from his cantonment with a great rabble of camp-followers and it was not far from here that the knives of the Gilzais rose and fell until the British army of Afghanistan was wiped out – almost to a man
Of Britain’s 19th century presence in Kabul there is now no legacy save this handful of broken gravestones, so defaced that you can hardly read the names of the dead except to see that one man had won a VC.
They fell into decrepitude during Afghanistan’s civil wars and then the Taleban came and smashed them up again and then – almost incredibly – in the 21st century the Brits came back and repaired the cemetery
And there on the walls are fresh names of the British dead of the 456 who gave their lives in the last 15 years from every part of the United Kingdom for the sake not of imperial glory but in the hope of improving the lives of the people of Afghanistan.
And when you look at those names you imagine the pain of their families today, back in Britain and the suffering of the many more who have been badly injured and you ask yourself what manner of people are we – the British that we have come back here – to this country thousands of miles from home?
And we keep sending our soldiers to lay down their lives? Why? With one in eight of the people born in this country now living abroad a bigger diaspora than any other rich nation, you ask yourself what impulse drives this astonishing globalism, this wanderlust of aid workers and journalists and traders and diplomats and entrepreneurs, because whatever that feeling is, it isn’t xenophobia.
And I imagine there are people in this distinguished audience today who are wondering whether the next generation of Brits will be possessed of the same drive, the same curiosity, the same willingness to take risks for far flung peoples and places.
Because this is the year in which, as we periodically do, we did something that startled our friends and rivals. We voted to leave the European Union.
And ever since that extraordinary vote on June 23 there have been efforts to psychoanalyse the result and to impute bad motives to the British people and there have been plenty who have been only too quick to draw comparisons with populist movements across the world.
All I will say is that we should not let these glib analogies replace individual analysis.
In the famous words of Tolstoy [opening to Anna Karenina] “all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Discontent can have subtly different wellsprings. There were plenty of people who voted to leave the EU, and I count myself as one who thought on these lines, not because they disliked or feared foreigners, but because they believed in democracy.
And after 43 years, because they had still not come to endorse the finalite politique of the EU, and it is my passionate belief that there is no contradiction whatever between a trust in the nation-state as the key building block of the global order and a generous and open mindset towards the rest of the world, and so my message to all those who are wondering – as Metternich supposedly did on the death of Talleyrand – what we meant by that is that Brexit emphatically does not mean a Britain that turns in on herself.
Yes – a country taking back control of its democratic institutions
But not a nation hauling up the drawbridge or slamming the door.
A nation that is now on its mettle.
A nation that refuses to be defined by this decision.
A country galvanised by new possibilities and a country that is politically and economically and morally fated.
To be more outward-looking and more engaged with the world than ever before.
When I speak of Global Britain – and the need for us to commit ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the world. I know that there will be some who are wary that this sounds pretentious, in a nation that comprises less than one per cent of the world’s population.
I know there will be cynics who say we can’t afford it. I say we can’t afford not to.