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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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