England dreaming, the break-up of Britain and what Orson Welles knew

As someone who was born in the 1960s, the son of wartime evacuees from London, I had a sense from an early age that Britain was oppressed by a lost greatness.

England alone.
In need of soul-searching - what should England be? Photograph: Getty Images.

What does England want? What kind of country do we who call ourselves English wish to live in and be part of as good citizens, in an age of supranational institutions, of fluid, compound identities and of shared or conflicting sovereignties? Questions of national identity and purpose – especially for England, the dominant nation in these islands – will become even more pressing in 2014 as the September date of the referendum on Scottish independence approaches and we confront what seemed inconceivable only a few years ago, the possible break-up of the Union of Great Britain, with all the ramifications that it would have for the United Kingdom in the world.

Visit Scotland and you know an urgent and vibrantly self-questioning conversation is taking place. The Scottish elites – political, academic, journalistic, artistic, business – are grappling every day with fundamental questions of history, sovereignty, identity and culture. They are turning inwards but also looking outwards, daring to imagine what it might mean for Scotland to go its own way as a small nation in the world, bereft of all the supporting structures of the British state.

In England, by contrast, there is no such comparable conversation. Too many people, it seems to me, are either uninterested in the constitutional question or simply believe, or prefer to believe, that the Scots, when ultimately forced to choose, will opt for what they know. Certainly too many Westminster MPs – including many senior members of the Labour shadow cabinet – are complacent defenders of our existing constitutional settlement, the frustrations and inadequacies of which have left many Scots actively working towards separation and many English feeling disenfranchised and voiceless.

The last of England

As someone who was born in the 1960s, the son of wartime evacuees from London, I had a sense from an early age that England, or Britain (during my childhood the two nouns seemed to be interchangeable), was oppressed by a lost greatness. As my father grew older, he seemed to become ever more nostalgic for an England that no longer existed – or had never existed, except perhaps as a construct of the imagination. He spoke to me often about the war years and what it was like to have lived through the Blitz – his father refused to leave the house during air raids, even though other houses on their road were bomb-ruined and fire-destroyed. My paternal grandfather was a fatalist, and, as it happened, luck was on his side: he lived until he was nearly 90.

A sweeter, purer past

In Jeremy Paxman’s latest book, Great Brit­ain’s Great War, he writes that the end of the First World War was the point at which “the British decided that what lay ahead of them would never be as grand as their past; the point at which they began to walk backward into the future”.

I thought of these words last week when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II, with David Tennant impressively foppish and camp in the title role, at the Barbican in London. The play is not only about the deposition of a foolish king who too late reaches a kind of anguished self-knowledge, but about England and Englishness and what it means to walk backwards into the future.

Shakespeare was writing at the end of the 16th century. Richard II, who was crowned king as a ten-year-old boy in 1377, was deposed in 1399 and died the following year. Yet listen to or read John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech – “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle” – in which England is referred to as “this other Eden, demi-paradise”, and a question forms: is this what it means to be English, to be haunted by lost possibi­lities, to be banished from Avalon, which never did exist?

Throughout Richard II there are repeated references to English blood and to English soil. It’s as if an ideal of England has been violated. Richard, “unkinged”, dies at the end of the medieval period and Shakespeare is living through an Elizabethan golden age.

Yet there is a sense that the best is in the past; something has been irretrievably lost and those who came after the wretched Richard, including the Elizabethans watching and performing the play, are also walking backwards into the future. As Orson Welles once said: “I think Shakespeare was greatly preoccupied, as I am, in my humble way, with the loss of innocence. And I think there has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer . . . You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.”

Welles is on to something here. The myth of America is all about making it new; about self-reinvention, about being the person you wish to be. It’s about the present and also about what you will make of the future. And the myth of England? This one is complicated – and it is bound up, I think, with living in the present as it relates to the past; to what has been. It’s not for nothing, as Welles said, that Camelot is the great English legend.

Statesmanlike surge

And so ends our centenary year. Our admir­able subscriptions manager, Stephen Brasher, tells me that in “20 years working on the New Statesman, I’ve never known a year like it”. It has been busy, for sure, and we as a team are delighted that we have been able to honour this great magazine in various ways – not least through publishing two splendid centenary volumes showcasing the richness and quality of our archive.

There were times in recent years when it looked as if the New Statesman would not make it. Once on life support, it has now returned to robust health. Our website traffic is at a record high, buoyant advertising revenue has allowed us to increase the number of pages in the magazine, the circulation is rising steadily, our app has been successfully launched, we keep getting great scoops and we will return to profit in 2014.

None of this would have been possible without the loyal support of our readers. I wish you all a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.