When an unnamed Russian official allegedly told reporters at the G20 summit in St Petersburg that “no-one pays any attention to Britain” and that it was “just a small island”, British prime minister David Cameron was quick to respond with an impassioned defence of the country.
“Britain may be a small island but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience," he said, continuing by reminding people that Britain helped “clear the European continent of fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout World War II”, and that "Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.”
Warming to his argument at a later press conference, Cameron listed a number of world-renowned British cultural icons: The Beatles, Elgar, Shakespeare, and, er, One Direction. Unfortunately there was no mention of James Bond, but perhaps if Cameron feels compelled to give the speech again, he can find room for a character that has been one of the most enduring and successful British cultural exports.
Needless to say, there was much reaction in the British media, with many newspapers applauding Cameron's “Churchillian” and “impassioned” defence of Britain. A number of commentators compared the speech to a scene in the film, Love Actually (2003), in which the British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, says that “We may be a small country but we're a great one, too", and references a similar list of cultural icons (including Sean Connery).
For me, though, Cameron's words reminded me of a passage in chapter 8 of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice (1964), in which Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service dismisses Britain as a world power, and questions the value of giving Britain important intelligence material. “Balls to you, Tiger! And balls again!”, James Bond retorts. “We still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes. Our politicians may be a feather pated bunch, and I expect yours are too... But there's nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them.”
Both Cameron and Bond's defences allude to the notion of a small island punching well above its weight, and the idea that Britain has been responsible for many cultural, physical and scientific endeavours. No doubt politicians and commentators have been making the same defence since the end of the Second World War. But Fleming adds an interesting sentence. 'He [Bond] was still smarting under Tiger's onslaught, and the half-truths which he knew lay behind his words.' Those of a more cynical bent might wonder whether, like Bond's defence, David Cameron's speech was also to some extent an acknowledgement of uncomfortable truths.