Britain and the Problem of Living in the Past
The Scotsman, June 9th 2012
As Jubilee celebrations die down in the short period of calm before the Olympics, questions arise about what all this means, what Britain and Britishness is, and what the future might be for both.
The familiar account states that Britain does pageantry well, putting on a show, the big occasion, seamlessly combining old and new, tradition and modernisation. But is this an adequate explanation?
The British like anyone enjoy a party and having a good time but what we seem to have been celebrating these last few days is a culture and psyche which is fixated on living in the past.
Rather worryingly, the story of Britain’s past being told is increasingly selective and shaped by a collective amnesia about our history, triumphs and tribulations.
British history now seems to have been reduced to a few moments and moods: Churchill, Dunkirk, the summer of 1940, ‘we stood alone’, D-Day, and the legacy of Empire transforming into Commonwealth, as we remain reluctant, unconvinced Europeans.
The legacy of Empire is pivotal and now subject to systematic revision. This can be seen in Niall Ferguson’s neo-con revisionism of ‘Empire’ proclaiming it the expression of muscular liberalism, and in a lesser scale, in Gordon Brown talking of Empire as ‘a force for good’.
There is something profoundly liberating as well as conservative about living in the past; it can be constantly reimagined and recreated to suit the needs of the here and now. This begs the question what and whose Britain is being served by this constant invoking of the past, and turning our face away from any thoughts of the future.
There are obvious points about tourism, heritage trail Britain, films and cultural artifacts about the past, but something deeper is going on. Britain once explicitly believed in and embraced the future. Take the 1940s after the Second World War. All that talk of ‘New Jerusalem’, the welfare state and NHS was sold to voters by Labour with a manifesto entitled ‘Let Us Face the Future’ and a campaign slogan, ‘And Now Let’s Win the Peace’.
In the 1960s there was a sense of optimism and confidence in the air, that education was opening up previously closed opportunities to working class children, that the old high-bound attitudes of authority were breaking down, aided by a wave of social reforms and cultural upheaval.
Today even long before the recession this sense of the possible future has long since left the British collective imagination. There are many obvious culprits in this: the divisions and debris of 1970s Britain, Thatcherism and the false hopes of Blairism.
Yet all of the above are a symptom of a wider transformation: the failure of our political classes and establishment to embrace a modernisation of Britain which is progressive and enlightened. This was the motivating spirit of people in the 1940s and 1960s, when they believed that the future would turn out to be a world which was better and fairer.
This climate has left Britain in a place where it has few island stories holding it together. The great post-war hopes have gone, and along with it a collective sense in progress which had numerous different versions: Conservative, Labour, the example of the Open University. It isn’t surprising that people want to invoke and celebrate the Queen as a symbol and person for at least her lineage provides some common thread over these last 60 years.
Britain has become a land of myths and folklore in which there is a paucity of plausible stories. All the best myths and symbols point to the past, to famous battles, moments or often invented traditions, and there is little confidence or appetite for looking at and embracing the future.
All of this has happened when one of the most powerful forces of ‘Brand Britain’, popular culture, is just as resolutely imprisoned in the past. Take British popular music which has since the 1960s voiced a very different set of reference points around the world celebrating diversity, creativity and authenticity. It is now in a stale, predictable state, reminiscing about its ‘golden days’ long gone.
Once the union jacks are taken out of the supermarkets and shop windows and the Olympic juggernaut has passed where is Britain going? Can we permanently inhabit a ‘Back to the Future’ mindset – what writer Patrick Wright called the increasing British sensibility of ‘living in an old country’ where the dead and the past in some near ghoulish way are with us and getting noisier by the day?
For those who saw the Jubilee events as evidence of a new 1,000 years of British history and the dishing of those humourless Nats, they are going to be disappointed.
We have to evolve beyond the simplistic unionist mantras such as stating that you can’t be Scottish and British in an independent Scotland; says who and why? All of those who endlessly bash ‘nationalism’ as a negative force (Johann Lamont, Douglas Alexander et al) should realise that unionism is a form of nationalism, British nationalism, and that they are nationalists.
Instead we should explore more subtle themes. Is the evolution of a post-British set of identities inevitable eventually? Or can we sit more easily with a humble British cultural identity shorn of Empire and imperial hubris? We cannot permanently live in a fantasy play park of a make believe past, telling ourselves we are proud to be British while not being sure what that means.
The Britain of the last few days represents the failure of any real meaningful modernisation, and its repackaging around a glossy package to hide the profound retreat and limitation this means for the future. The British nationalism of the union is one which increasingly harks back to the past.
Any country needs shared events, even national holidays and the human need for connection and some kind of communion. Yet what is being presented is a kind of David Starkey Britain, a version of ourselves which we know is inadequate; it is a modern day fairy tale to delude ourselves that we are okay and everything is going to work out fine.
We cannot in perpetuity live in the past for if we do eventually Britain becomes a museum which American and Chinese tourists pass through. Instead, we have to take a good hard look at ourselves, and the thin official story of multi-cultural, multi-national, diverse Britain something Ed Miliband began to do this week in an important speech which departed from the Brownite script of Britishness.
The United Kingdom is not a modern country and nor is a democracy with only one part of our constitution, the Commons, elected. Our leaders and elites would like to keep it this way as long as possible, but why should the people so quietly and happily acquiesce?