The failure of British myths

Among the many articles on the French riots, there was an interesting summary of the different approaches to immigrants that France, the US and Britain took by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1637189,00.html). The problem he mentions with affirming a common British identity (it seems to me) is at least partly due to the collapse of belief in and even interest in a lot of national myths. Such national myths may need to be debunked periodically by historians, but they’re at least a starting point for a common sense of Britishness.

I think the problem of Britishness versus Englishness is something of a side-issue. You could argue that Britishness no longer works as a concept because of devolution/Scots nationalism etc, or conversely, that the reason there’s no English identity is because it was submerged in a British one for getting on for 400 years. But given the dominance of England within the UK (just in terms of size/population), I think it’s still possible to construct an overall British national myth which comes in a few different local variants (just as in the US you can have the coexistence of an American myth/identity and a Southern myth/identity).

The real problem is that most of the previous or possible myths no longer seem to have any meaning for most of the population: they’ve either become obsolete or are unacceptable in some other way. Here’s a brief review of some possibilities:

1) The Monarchy. I’m old enough to remember the genuine excitement about the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 (an excitement also seen for Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981). The Golden Jubilee in 2002, by contrast, almost passed me by. I’m a monarchist in the sense that I’m happy to have the Queen as ceremonial Head of State, but as a medieval historian, the Windsors are never going to have the thrill to me that the Plantagenet dynasty (or indeed the Carolingians) have. But I think England (I’m less sure about the rest of the UK) did have a real sense of pride in the monarchy that is now pretty much lost. And the blame largely needs to be put on Charles and Diana. Part of the problem for the myth of monarchy is that we now know more about the private lives of the royals. [The fatal blow to Prince Charles’ hopes of any respect was probably the revelation that he his valet has to put his toothpaste on his toothbrush]. Diana’s Panorama interview was possible the key moment here. But it’s also that the younger royals have broken the psychological contract with the British people. Figurehead monarchs/members of the royal family either have to be quietly conscientious (whether in the bicycle riding way or something more extravagant) or glamorous. Prince Charles in contrast, seems to combines a lack of concern about other’s feelings (as shown especially in his marriage) with a wish to wallow in his own. There are few things more unappealing than a privileged man exhibiting self-pity. I don’t think Britain is going to be a republic any time soon, but I also can’t see the monarchy easily regaining its symbolic power.

2) Empire and Commonwealth. It’s hard in the late twentieth century to build an acceptable ideology out of the British Empire (unless you’re an extreme right-winger), but there was once a serious attempt to make something of the Commonwealth, as a now peaceful association of nations across the world. This myth did have the advantage of being multiracial, but it’s now so dead that it’s impossible to revive: apart from the Queen, I’m not sure there are any true believers now.

3) Britain in Europe. It would in theory be possible to create a great national myth of us as a European nation. You could then link the Middle Ages to the EU and say we’re now reclaiming our rightful place at the ‘heart of Europe’ (in Tony Blair’s phrase). The myth of Europe itself is somewhat problematic: historically Europe is largely white Christendom and so it’s a potentially exclusionary myth. But the bigger problem is that there is such antipathy to the EU and so little understanding of Britain’s positive historical links to the rest of Europe that I don’t see an easy way of changing general perceptions. (It’s not helped by the fact that University history departments are still often implicitly divided up into British/European/World history. Anglo-Saxonists are among the most insular).

4) British Constitution. The development of the British Constitution was a key part of the Whig narrative/myth of history as progress. As it’s an unwritten constitution, however, the bits that has been fetishised have largely not been documents (I’m not sure even I really know what’s in Magna Carta or the UK Bill of Rights), but institutions – in particular the monarchy (see above) and the Houses of Parliament. Since Parliament has itself become less relevant (partly through the growth of a presidential style of government and as a side-effect of being in the EU), it’s hard to make this myth inspiring in its current form. I think it would be productive to try and create a new more liberal/socialist myth of this in which the emphasis was on increasing human rights and democracy. You could possibly find a line via the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Lord Shaftesbury to the Human Rights Act that was distinctively English/British. (It’s somehow very English, for example, that the group symbolising the struggle for trade union rights comes not from the industrial heartlands of Britain, but an obscure Dorset town on the River Piddle). But until this national history finds a spokesman who is as eloquent as Tony Benn, but less clearly nutty, it’s not going to get anywhere.

5) Really obsolete myths. Britain as the workshop of the world (died about 1900?), Britain as a Protestant nation (clearly dead when Prince Charles’ wedding was postponed so the Prime Minister could attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral), ‘the New Elizabethan Age’ (did this survive more than a year or two after 1953?), Our Island Story/Splendid Isolation (there are still attempts to revive this, but it clearly bears no relation to modern life).

6) What we’re left with. Depressingly, the British/English myth we’re left with is largely summed up by the English football supporters’ slogan: ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’, with the addition of hating the French. The only historical anniversaries that now seem to resonate are about WW2 and Trafalgar. (I bet in 10 years time even Waterloo won’t attract such excitement, because it wasn’t just Us against the Frogs). Defining our history largely through war seems to me to be a profoundly depressing development. (And we don’t actually have that many sporting triumphs to celebrate). Basing a national myth on victory this way also means that our identity means constant jeering at the losers. And though you could add a multicultural element to this myth (the Indians on the Western Front, the Poles in the RAF), in practice it’s normally seen as an Anglo-Saxon triumph only.
The upmarket version of this national myth is Atlanticism and the Special Relationship. The idea of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy still seems to worry the French, but it doesn’t seem to me to offer anything much to the UK. The Special Relationship now seems to me much like the relationship between a cat and a lion: they may have common origins, but the cat’s going to get a nasty shock if it expects more favours than a few leftovers. (As for Macmillan’s ideas of the British as Greeks to the US as Romans – yes, they take our best ideas, use them to help make themselves an even more dominant power and then sneer at us as effete losers).

We need something better. I’m just not sure at the moment what we ought to be trying for or how to get it. Any suggestions?

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