Letter from Poland
“I’m going to Poland,” I told my Gran almost ten years ago. “Holland?” she replied. I’m not sure if she misheard or if the idea of someone moving to Poland was inexplicable. British people didn’t move to Poland. Polish people moved to Britain.
Of course, the latter remains more accurate than the former. But I don’t think people would be half as surprised and confused if someone they knew was moving to Poland in 2023 than they would have been in 2013. Poland has long had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe – making it possible, though by no means certain, that it could become richer, at least per capita, than Britain.
Post-pandemic and mid-war inflation has afflicted Poles, and an ageing population presents a challenge, but Poland has an emerging tech sector, attractive markets for investment and a wealth of talent, with Polish students getting some of the world’s top results at school. The conflict in Ukraine has given it tremendous geopolitical relevance – though with that has come with the risk of excessive reliance on the United States, as well as the risk of military escalation.
Of course, nations are not merely economic units, or political entities. But Poland is, above all, a beautiful place. If you haven’t been to Warsaw and Kraków, you have doubtless heard of their cultural and architectural riches from your friends and relatives. But there is also Toruń, and Gdańsk, and Wrocław — cities that are not just pleasurable to visit but that you can imagine living in, not least because, unlike the best cities of Britain, you wouldn’t have to sell half your internal organs to rent a flat there.
There are also the mountains of the Beskids and the Tatras – blanketed with snow and studded with towns and villages where you can sit in smoked cheese-smelling warmth. Then there are the lakes of Masuria, or the forests of the “White Wilderness” and the “Green Wilderness”, as well as the Baltic Sea. Like Britain, you can’t think of Poland in a single landscape.
I am always averse to conservatives making the error of imagining that Poland — or Hungary – is some kind of utopia, however. Intellectually, though not morally, it is similar to the error of Leftists who think the revolution must have been perfected somewhere else. Poland is a traditionally Catholic nation but its people are often liberals and progressives, and issues like abortion or links between the church and state are bitterly contested. Still, a visiting conservative could hardly avoid being impressed the busy churches, the general absence of community tensions, and the respect that people hold for the historical sacrifices that ensured the survival of the country.
Many in Britain have long known about those historical sacrifices. I remember speaking to people who remembered stories of the daring exploits of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, fighting over English fields while their compatriots faced bloodthirsty occupation. Others remembered Lech Wałęsa’s bewhiskered face, an iconic image of the years when Poles resisted cruel and sclerotic communism.
Now some Poles are taking the inspiration of their ancestors to create new artistic, moral, political and economic accomplishments without being weighed down. These achievements since the end of communism have had much to do with international cooperation, of course, in politics as well as in business – but to seal its place on the international stage, Poland must be distinctively itself.
I hope its young people are ambitious enough to do themselves and their predecessors proud. Certainly, I’m proud to say that I have been living here. No offence to Holland.