The Day Britain Died
Andrew Marr Profile Books, 251pp, £7.99
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. I had a sense of deja vu when I read the passage in Andrew Marr's book telling of how he agonised over his dramatic title. When I wrote my book, The Death of Britain, on the constitutional revolution we are now living through, I did not expect the idea to be taken up by the elegant pen of Marr. I had been through much the same thought processes as him a year earlier, as I sought ways to alert the British people to the magnitude of events without sounding too pessimistic about the future. If anything, Marr is even more pessimistic, his title firmly asserting that Britain has died.
Yet inside the sensational covers is an altogether more considered and hesitant analysis of where we are and where we might be going. While on page 17 we learn that Britain is probably dead already, and on page 208 we are told that "the old Britain into which I was born is dead", on page 57 we hear that Britain is merely "under threat". On page 227 we are relieved to learn that Britain might hold together after all. As I read on, I came to understand and sympathise with the convolutions in the argument. Marr is right that Britain is under threat, but his final word that all is not lost is also my own view.
One of the pleasures of this very readable book was discovering how much common ground exists across the political parties on the British question. Marr and I may wish to end up in different countries - he in Europe and I in Britain - but we do agree that creating a new country is not easy, and that dismantling an old one is a long and painful process which breaks up something in each of us born and bred here. Marr would vote for the euro, knowing that it would make a seismic change to how we are governed, who we think we are and where we belong. I would vote against it for exactly the same reasons.
One of the fascinations for an Englishman and unionist such as me is that Marr writes as an Anglicised Scot. He laments his choice to learn "Queen's English" and lose his Scottish accent early in life, but also glories in his decision as he builds his life in London and enjoys the embracing metropolitan atmosphere of the capital. He tends to see the possible independence of Scotland as the defining moment in the death of Britain. On one hand, he writes as if it has not yet happened, seeing devolution as part of an inevitable journey to independence; on the other, he writes as if the idea of Britain has already been reduced to rubble.
Marr attempts to define Britishness as a set of attitudes and institutions. He rejects the idea that monarchy can unite the kingdom and keep us British; he reveals his own republicanism and urges a referendum to remove the Queen. He rejects the notion that the Church of England can keep us together, although he acknowledges the importance of the Protestant Reformation to ideas of Britishness, in both Scotland and England. He believes that parliament is no longer a force to keep the union together, arguing from the present lack of enthusiasm for parliament shown by a government and party with an over-large majority. He is rash to assume that that will continue once the electorate has restored more balance to the numbers.
He sees Shakespeare as the quintessential embodiment of Englishness, yet many of his fellow countrymen turn to Shakespeare for delight and instruction. Many Scots come to London in search of fame, fortune, entertainment and business, and many still value the union and understand that advantages flow both ways across the border. My main disagreement with the book's analysis is that it leaves Europe to the end, whereas to me Britain's relationship with the EU runs through the whole story. It is part of the reason for devolution which most dominates Andrew Marr's thinking. It is part of the pressure on Queen and Parliament which leads Marr to conclude that Britain is fading fast. The decisions on Britain's future relationship with Europe will be crucial in settling whether Britain dies and when.
Marr does eventually concede that "in Europe, every significant nation has co-operated in a massive retreat from national independence by joining the EU". But his talismanic interest in Europe is insubstantial and tarnished with some silly errors. He ascribes the referendum on Britain's membership of the EEC to Edward Heath, whereas it was a device of Harold Wilson's to deal with splits in the Labour government. He sees Churchill as an advocate of European union, quoting the relevant parts of the Zurich speech, but not also quoting the parts of the Fulton speech which made it crystal clear that he did not want Britain to join the United States of Europe but an English-speaking union. He blames Douglas Hurd and Francis Maude for signing up to compulsory metrication, implying that they had a choice and wanted it that way.
These quibbles should not detract from a spirited and revealing book. It shows the tortures of a sensitive and thoughtful journalist of the centre-left as he questions whether the devolution and European reforms he wants will destroy the country of his birth. Although Marr wants us to modernise, he still loves, in a secret kind of way, the British certainties of his youth.
John Redwood is a Conservative MP