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

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.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia