The New Statesman Essay - Stuff the hope and glory

Andrew Marr argues that his children must learn to be differently British

The Eurosceptics are right. It is time for a bare-knuckle fight about what we really believe; the kind of people we are and want to be. This country is on the edge of a great battle about British identity, focused on the likely loss of the pound. It is a pivotal moment. But all the rage and the passion has been on one side.

I am a federalist and I want to dump a great, gilt-licked lump of British history in the Atlantic. My side is winning - as Michael Portillo, at least, has noticed. The polls show a slide towards Europe. Tony Blair has noticed, too, and is cautiously flexing his toes on the accelerator pedal.

But first there needs to be a proper national row and it needs to happen now. If you doubt that, you should get Hugo Young's new book, This Blessed Plot, a history of Britain and Europe since 1945, which is that rare thing, a book strong enough to change minds - and even the political climate. If Blair sat down with it over a few evenings, he would be a different and a better Prime Minister when he got up again.

Young puts in perspective what has, for most of us, seemed a long dull blur. He describes a catastrophic defeat for this country, little understood even now. He shows how, decade after decade, the timidity, ignorance and delusion of the British establishment lost the British their best chance for a new place in the world for their children. We sold ourselves out. These are the perfectly patriotic facts that undercut the old patriotic history. For history is what this is all about.

I learnt my first history at a Scottish prep school in the 1960s. It was, therefore, decades behind the times. Though 39, I guess I had a pretty similar early education to, say, Evelyn Waugh, Bill Cash or Harold Macmillan. The Latin conjugations, the tramp through the great tradition of English poetry, the science course based on "stinks", the threat of the cane - all these would have been familiar to schoolchildren who were dead of old age before I was born. But the history lessons are the point. We had a red-splattered map of the British Commonwealth (it may even have been the Empire) pinned to one wood-partitioned classroom wall. We worked our way through Nelson's battles one by one. We learnt the kings and queens, studied Clive of India, the Peninsular campaign, Livingstone, the Crimea. Even out of class, in television and in the cinema, traditionalism still ruled, at least for censored schoolboys: BBC dramas about Henry VIII, Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, the biopic of Cromwell, the Battle of Britain. I learnt Scottish history, too; but the core of identity was fiercely Anglocentric, lantern-jawed, vivid and self-confident.

It was also, we now know, lethal to Britain's reassessment of herself in the fifties and sixties. History was the communal middle-class poetry of the postwar Britain which, as Young describes, persistently evaded the harsh choices of the modern world. We became a nation in love with its imperial past, mooning over the Commonwealth and simply too dopey to understand the huge political project taking shape, under our noses, on the Continent.

So I find it easy to understand why Britain stayed so aloof for so long. How could we not? Of European negotiations in the early 1960s, Young writes: "The Commonwealth bulked very large. There are reams of papers from the Treasury and the Board of Trade exploring different outcomes for tropical foodstuffs and temperate foodstuffs, woodpulp and aluminium, Rhodesian tobacco and New Zealand butter." I can relate to that. My family, like many, had old Empire and Commonwealth connections. We knew little or nothing of the Continent. My father had worked in North America; my grandparents had been in India; my cousin went there too.

Like many families, mine had lost relatives in two wars and were more than a little anti-German. No Volkswagens or Mercedes for us. (Though that was in the sixties and seventies; it changed.)

Later I found myself identifying, too, with the Labour left internationalism that emphasised the virtue of Britain sticking by black and brown Commonwealth nations, rather than joining a relatively rich, white and exclusive club. Its romantic possibilities were sketched by Michael Moorcock in some of his novels which imagine the British Empire evolving into a multiracial and liberal alliance. But it was, in the end, a family thing. As Harold Wilson put it with clipped, biting finality in 1961: "We are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Dusseldorf."

Behind Hugo Young's story of agonised politicians and civil servants, there was, perhaps, two-thirds of a nation which just wanted to turn its back on the Continent, with its grim wartime memories, and start the less painful business of mimicking America. But we were horribly, tragically wrong. We lost the chance to help shape a better Europe and to make ourselves a new kind of people. After the physical exertions of the war, perhaps we had too little mental energy left to confront the realities of the peace. Peter Jenkins, the great political columnist, used to refer to himself as "a poet of decline". Right - the industrial statistics were relentless. The loss of our power was shockingly fast. The national story of my adult lifetime has been a bone-shaking journey downhill, disguised intermittently by the fog of self-delusion.

Almost every noble or merely highly coloured excuse has collapsed. Our global pretensions have gone. Our economic illusions have shrivelled. It is not possible any more to envisage a serious non-European role in the world for this country - and for those who think otherwise a sober read through a half-century of political and diplomatic failure is the necessary and shocking corrective.

Part of the trouble is that the national and imperial stories, with their tattered flags and resounding names, are richer raw material for political rhetoric than anything thrown up by Belgian bureaucrats. It's those damned romantic old tunes again. When Hugh Gaitskell orated about how European integration meant "the end of a thousand years of history" (the unconscious source, surely, of a later Labour leader's famous speech about being the first Kinnock "in a thousand generations" to go to university), he was talking a kind of glorious nonsense that works viscerally today just as effectively as it did then. It can be pulled out by a newspaper or a politician or a TV documentary maker and, even among the most ignorant solipsists of Cool Britannia, it will still work instantly. Emotionally, it is crack cocaine. Meanwhile, in the intervening period, nothing from the pro-European side has had the same kind of kick. Or not, at least, in Britain.

A few weeks ago, we were commemorating our war dead. In France and Germany, that is the whole bloody point. But Flanders memories which, on the Continent, fed the drive to European Union and a new peaceful political order, have precisely the opposite message at home. There, they say: "never again; a new Europe". Here, the poppies whisper: "keep away". Why is this? The very same newspapers that made most of Poppy Day, and ran the most moving articles about the lost millions of 1914-18 and 1939-45, are the most Europhobic. It has been a European story that has never been properly translated into English.

It wasn't that we didn't know our history. By God, we did. Even today, our bookshops are stuffed with battle histories and cod-Nelsonian novels. It's just that we never learnt the proper lessons of history. Salt water deafened us. So today, it is not merely necessary for Britain to become institutionally committed to Europe; we must actually become different people, too.

I may have had it in extreme form, but the mental outlook which moulded me is still common enough. We must take it on and crush it. Its products are redundant, about as relevant to the modern world as the rabid anti-Catholicism of the 17th-century Puritan schoolmasters.

Every European nation had glorious battles. Many others have had great statesmen. So stuff Macaulay and Trevelyan and the Whig view of history. Stuff our arrogant, chosen-people mythologies for Scots or English or Irish (except on the sports field). Stuff our complacency about British democracy, which is getting a much-needed repair job but which has been in a very poor state for decades. And stuff our stuffiness too.

I want my children to be extraordinarily different from me. It is hard to imagine them as adults, but I want them to be multilingual, able to move about and feel at home in Germany and France, as I never have or will.

Military, royal and imperial history had a big subliminal influence on me (even if only by making me overreact against it), but I hope they will come across it later in life than I did, and then skim it. Certainly, I dream of them being serious about their culture and thoroughly European in that - after all, this saw-edged island would have no art and precious little music without the Continent. They must grow up to see Agincourt and Waterloo as European tribal battles, not destiny-soaked way stations towards the triumph of global liberalism. They will have the same sort of feeling for the pound sterling that I have for the groat.

Do I mean, in short, that they must be less British? Well, to borrow from the grammar of political correctness, I think they must be "differently British". Our nostalgia has led us to underestimate the great changes in Britishness in previous generations. Pious, restrained mid-Victorians could look back on their Georgian or Regency grandparents as uncouth monsters from another world; for the generation between the two world wars, the Victorian world had become repulsive, and so on. Nations change constantly, or fossilise.

But what values, if any, would the next British bring to the party? Just as it is hard to imagine the ideology of the French or American revolutions without Locke or Paine, so it is hard to imagine a stable European politics without the British anti-authoritarian chippiness and cheek. We are becoming, once again, a more turbulent, irreverent and creative people. Britain as a multi-national, multi-ethnic, democratic political club is a potential model that Europeans will eventually enjoy.

The simple questions asked by British politicians - about who is accountable in the maze of the EU and to whom, and how the people can expel rascals it disapproves of - are not part of an Anglo-Saxon subversion. They are just, well, simple questions that need to be answered, and so far haven't been, by the Continental political elites.

So while a new kind of European Briton grows up and is educated, I hope, to fail to understand the previous generation of Briton, the British political establishment also needs to reposition itself. It now goes without saying that we should enter the single currency as soon as possible. But while some commentators argue that there is too much constitutional reform about, the truth is that there isn't enough - to make an enlarged EU work, Britain and other nations need to push ahead still further.

Tony Blair needs his own radical agenda for institutional reform. It should involve an open Council of Ministers for the EU; and the European Commission should change so that it is either directly elected or clearly subservient to elected people. I would like to see a congress of Europe which began discussions towards a full European constitution. This would hand back many powers now held by Brussels to member states and establish a clear system of nation states' rights. It is time to go into Europe with a vision, not a clipboard of objections.

Only a year ago, senior ministers regarded such talk as cloud-cuckoo vapouring. But the enormous changes that are coming as crowds of new countries jostle to join the EU give Europe's leaders their biggest chance since 1955 to reshape their future. Vision and clarity are wanted more today than ever before.

And, for once, British thinking need not be marginal. If we really commit ourselves to Europe - as a people, not just as an elite - we could matter again, as we have not mattered in the world since the end of the war. But we must be clear. It won't be a "British Europe", or a British-dominated Europe, or an Anglo-American Europe. Those are the old pretensions which belong back on the splintered wooden wall of a bust Scottish prep school that closed almost a generation ago. We are members not rulers, partners with many others, not a dominant political ruling class.

On the other hand, the opportunities for energetic British islanders to influence events and enrich themselves in this new Europe are huge. If, for half a century, we have been stunned by the loss of our global status, the self-governance of huge tracts of the world, including India and Africa, then we have blindly failed to notice the up-side. We are part of a new global bloc which needs us, and which we need. Our new continent is only a short train ride away.

Andrew Marr, the former editor of the "Independent", now writes for the "Observer" and the "Express"

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family