We are going through one of those horrible and debilitating periods in our history when we are convinced that everybody hates us. Racked with grief, we may even begin to hate ourselves – and thus climb into bed at night praying that we might wake up as Turks. Or Irishmen.
It is partly the Eurovision Song Contest. For years we have foisted jaunty, sub-American pop pap on our European neighbours and watched as they lapped it all up, imitated it and vomited it back across the North Sea with Scandinavian or German accents. The more inane our pop exports, the more the Europeans loved them; hence that memorable high-water mark of 'Making Your Mind Up', by Bucks Fizz: a Song Contest winner, a Continental number one, and possibly the most stupid song ever written.
But now, it seems, they've had enough. Our pop group Jemini – just as devoid of talent as Bucks Fizz or Paper Lace – was shunned by every voter from Ankara to Zagreb and scored a famous nul points. Newspaper editorials argued that this debacle occurred because the song was crap. That is as maybe, but it ignores the fact that every previous entry from the UK has been 'crap', too, yet still garnered enough points to finish in the top five. The truth is that voting in the Song Contest always reflects national affiliations and enmities, which is why the Irish – those cheerful underdogs who have been the victims of reluntluss upprussion by the Bruddish – always do well, the Greeks always give the Cypriots 12 points, and why, this year, we finished last. Ergo, it is argued, they hate us.
It is partly true. My guess is that if we hadn't invaded Iraq we'd have finished in the top 12, at least – something Blair didn't think about, clearly. But even before then we were fairly loathed: an opinion poll in 1996 ranked us bottom of the EU for likeability. Ireland, as ever, came top. People who had been invaded by Hitler happily placed the Germans above Britain in the popularity stakes. We were despised for our nostalgia about the war and the empire, our arrogance, our sangfroid, our hooligans, and our linguistic and cultural attachment to the United States. Indeed, we were seen as sort of US manqués – except without the firepower and the financial clout.
But these are only words and opinions. They are not actions. And my job is to convince you that beyond the veil of contempt, actually, we are adored, when you examine the statistics that matter: the ones about people wanting to live here.
The good news is that Britain is still by a mile the most popular country in the industrialised world for refugees. In 2002 there were 111,000 asylum applications for Britain – more than double those for France. In fact only 1.5 per cent of the world's asylum-seekers wish to live in France. Not many more wish to live in Germany, and comparatively next to none in Ireland. Last year we had double the number of applications of the United States, according to the US government website. If we are so reviled as a nation, why is this the case?
Partly, it's our strange obsession with abiding by the letter of international law, plus some attractive economic incentives. People who wish to live in Britain are afforded the instant status of asylum-seeker. Further, our black economy is four times the size of those in both France and Germany, and there is no penalty for employers who are found to be hiring illegal immigrants. Best of all, if you are an asylum-seeker arriving in Britain you stand a one-in-40 chance of being repatriated.
There's more stuff in our favour. The UNHCR works tirelessly to encourage more people to come to Britain, and even more tirelessly to convince British people not only that we should let more in, but also that we are mean-spirited in our approach to the issue of asylum. The official UNHCR website ranks countries according to the ratio of asylum-seekers per head of indigenous population and, as a result, we come a lowly tenth. The most 'generous' countries, then, are those with the most sparse populations – Austria and Sweden, for example; the implication being that if you are already a crowded country, you should, by rights, let more and more people in every year, rather than fewer.
In fact, the whole website is a quite masterful exercise in propagandist dissembling. Log in and you will find us ranked 'tenth' for admitting refugees and then lectured that NON-industrialised countries let in more people than we do. You're not really doing your bit is the gist, despite the fact that we're doing more than any other First World country on this crowded planet.
So, when it comes to actions, we are very popular indeed. There was recently a feature on the BBC's Newsnight programme about the plight of the gypsy (or Romany) population in Slovakia. Apparently, the pikeys have a horrible time of it in Slovakia, but – the great news is – they are all coming here. Interviewed towards the end of the feature, one after another of them remarked that as soon as Slovakia is in the EU, they'll be on the first plane to Heathrow. None of them said, 'Oh, actually, I quite fancy Belgium, or Denmark.' None of them said, 'Look, I won't live in Britain because you people are unable to come to terms with the undoubted trauma occasioned by the dissolution of your empire and your dissolving status as a world superpower.' They said instead, 'Yep, put the kettle on, we'll be there by teatime.'
According to the government, some 20 million people will move to Britain inside the next couple of decades. Some 15 million British people will, during the same period, move out. Twenty million! They don't hate us that much, do they, the foreigners?
Of course, once here, it would be insensitive and unsophisticated of us to imagine that they might trumpet their new loyalty from the rooftops. Quite the reverse: many of them will affect to despise us all the more. Last week there was a Kurdish chap in the audience of the Saturday politics programme that I co-present. We have given this man a home and a job and safety, while simultaneously liberating, at great expense, a good proportion of his homeland from tyrannical rule. But, rather gloriously, he had nothing but contempt for his new country. He didn't want to come here; we forced him to. We should never have armed Saddam in the first place, and so on and so on.
But no matter what he says, he loves us really: he came here. And the other asylum-seekers – some of whom (a minuscule minority, I dare say) will be sitting in their north London bedsits at this very moment wrapping up packets of ricin – they love us, too. Don't believe the Eurovision Song Contest or the opinion polls. The statistics tell the truth: we are the most popular country in the world.