Nostalgia addicts

The British love to dwell on their postwar "decline", but our grumpiness is misplaced, writes Lynsey

To be British in the knowledge of the country's postwar history is to wonder how we got from there to here in one piece. Many would argue that we haven't: that we tossed away an empire's worth of promise and failed even to manage our inevitable decline in a dignified or constructive way. Andrew Marr, an enthusiast arguably more in love with the political story of modern Britain than with its social and cultural stories, argues that not only have we made it in one piece, but most of us have done rather well along the way.

That's the thing: the narrative many of us believe most readily is that of our decline, a credo with which Marr has little patience. We can't let go of the past, he suggests, which makes everything that happens to us in the present seem like relative failure. Imperial Britain was automatically Great for what he calls the "red-spattered maps", despite the grotesque urban poverty, the insecurity of Victorian capitalism - a return to which we voted for and, evidently, wish no large-scale retreat from - and the sheer wrongness of rule over others.

Like the academic Peter Hennessy - to whom the former BBC political editor offers thanks for reading a draft of this book - Marr is overwhelmingly glad and excited to be British. That doesn't make either of them chauvinists, judging by their books: you may as well make the most of your accident of birth. What you get from A History of Modern Britain is a sense that nostalgia is the true disease of the British, the one that prevents us from showing or being our best selves.

He opens his speedy, personality-filled survey by stating that we are a "grumpy people, perpetually outraged by the stupidity and deceit of our rotten rulers". We are indeed a grumpy people, and yet we vote for the people who make us so. That's a tricky one. Marr gives compelling accounts of all the major decisions made on our behalf - whether stupid or awe-inspiring, they were often made with our support - which boil down to a few nation-changing cases.

First, the Attlee government of 1945-51 decided that Britain had to have a nuclear deterrent. Churchill, Macmillan and, later, Alec Douglas-Home reinforced this during the "13 wasted years" of Tory rule that followed Labour's first full term in power. We ended up with Polaris bases - situated at the unfortunately named Holy Loch - that could polish off Glasgow at a stroke, and discussing with Khrushchev how many H-bombs Moscow would need to destroy Britain altogether (the British ambassador thought six, Khrushchev's advisers thought "several scores").

Even Marr can't find a satisfying answer as to how and why that happened:

It had become perfectly obvious after the Cuban missile crisis that if Armageddon happened, it would have been triggered by some miscalculation or accident involving the US or the USSR. Every other nation, nuclear or not, would be a mere observer. And if the independent deterrence was not independent, and far from giving Britain leverage, made her a supplicant, why did Britain press on?

Our going nuclear seemed motivated by two conflicting beliefs: that Britain needed to keep up with the US to display its continuing might, and that Britain couldn't survive without depending on the US. This completely daft and damaging position ought to have been dropped at the end of the cold war; as it is, we're renewing Trident.

Second - though this is a point made mutedly in the space of a page or so - three pivotal figures refused to take the issue of class as seriously as they ought to have done. Rab Butler, the education minister of the wartime coalition, cemented class distinctions with his creation of the tripartite school system. It was one of those cases - like the right to buy council houses in the 1980s - in which a good few working-class individuals benefited from reform at the expense of the great many.

Then came Macmillan (again), in his role as Churchill's housing minister, and his replacement, Keith Joseph, with their grand plans to house the working classes more quickly and cheaply than their Labour predecessor, Nye Bevan, had done. Marr blames regional mini-Stalins such as Birmingham's Harry Watton for the blight of thrown-up, under-maintained tower blocks and bleak peripheral estates, but if the Tories had not decided to award subsidies to councils for building above six storeys, they might not have been quite so keen.

Third, the Falklands - a conflict whose worldwide significance was summed up by Jorge Luis Borges as "two bald men fighting over a comb", but which, in Marr's view, changed both "Margaret Thatcher's personal story and the country's politics". If she hadn't taken us in, it's a reasonable bet that the newly formed and vastly popular Social Democratic Party might have ousted her after a single, catastrophic term in power.

Did we really flip from being cuddly SDP voters to blood-smeared war fans in a single year? And, if so, what on earth were we thinking? To Marr, the war's impact also "merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life. There was a raw and bloody edge to the spirit of the age." In other words, the miners would be next. But that description seems just as apt when applied to the past five years of our history, during which Tony Blair has charged messianically into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Returning to Thatcher, as we must, her improbable rise to governance is expressed in terms of the wild comparisons she inspired. "She was simply mad," writes Marr of cartoon depictions in the left-wing press that showed her boggle-eyed and rivet-haired, "driven by an inhumanly stark world-view". Keith Joseph, of all people, is quoted as expressing regret at the "rapid and large de-manning" caused by the Tories' dismantling of Britain's industrial base. Thatcher felt no such thing: she wanted the soup kitchens back. Talk about misplaced nostalgia.

Lastly, there is not a single decision, but a series of short-termist, expedient, voter-courting measures to consider, taken by chancellors, Labour and Tory, over the past 30 years or so to make their Budgets seem sweeter. Tax cuts. We vote for them; we love them; we get grumpy when services are cut. Geoffrey Howe cut the basic rate from 33 per cent to 30 per cent in 1979, and the top rate from 83p to 60p in the pound.

Further tax cuts, which favoured the already rich, were funded from North Sea oil. It's hard to imagine the benefits for the Treasury of receiving that kind of money now, following Brown's pointless 2p cut earlier in the year. VAT and other duties have made up some of the shortfall, but that's not the point. Aided by politicians, voters made tax a dirty word.

There are other decisions that make you wonder whether any of our leaders ever truly believed there would be a tomorrow. The mines were destroyed, only for Britain to have to import coal. Two million industrial workers were "de-manned" - for many, that phrase would have felt literal - only to become reliant on the state for the rest of their lives. Dr Beeching hacked away at the railways, only for cars - those enemies of public space - to take precedence, and for us to need those branch lines back, 40 years on.

We postwar British are grumps who, in many ways - to use my late grandad's phrase - "don't know we're born". We don't remember the past comprehensively enough, which I guess is Marr's motivation for writing this book and making the BBC2 series that accompanies it. Our ability to do so has been compromised: by the continuing relevance of class; by the sheer shock of the Thatcher years; by being unable to remember what it is like to be young or even slightly different from the crowd.

Marr's history is one of muddle and hubris, and that's Britain all over. He ends the book by stating: "We British have no reason to despair, or emigrate." That's a true and welcome riposte to those who feel the need not only to do just that, but then to write to the Daily Mail informing the rest of its delightful readership that they had to move to France because of the immigrants. What a funny lot we are.

Lynsey Hanley is the author of "Estates: an intimate history" (Granta), a book about British council housing

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger