When the Queen died last year there was an acute sense that a deeper anchor of public consciousness had broken off and drifted away. In the Carolean era, nouns and adjectives, not actual things or people, are the communal mediators to our common life: unconfident, incapable, divided, depressed. Westminster’s centre-right think tankers dream of reinvigorating the nation by press-ganging the young into national service. Public intellectuals talk about restoring the “common good”. In this yawning chasm of aimlessness the loss of something else is felt. That cultural glue that once stood for some idea of Britain, that held us together between the rise of Blair and the dawn of Brexit: the national treasure.
These figures were easily identifiable: a pantheon of incorruptible actors, sports stars, and – Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris aside – television personalities. In 2010 YouGov consulted the public to formulate a list: Stephen Hawking, Judi Dench, David Attenborough, Paul McCartney, Joanna Lumley and fifteen others. It was a sensible, if at times mediocre, line-up for a nation limping into the new century. An inoffensive set who transcended class, taste and even politics. Somehow they embodied the late Queen’s contradictions: whimsical yet serious, authoritative yet relatable. They could have tea with royalty but also be the voice on our sat nav. Britain was no longer a world power, but these figures were references to its softer alternative, and a source of reassurance for a country often ill at ease with itself. Britain might no longer be powerful but, the list seemed to say, it could be nice.
Where have they gone? For many, thirteen years later, down to the grave. But for those still living, and indeed aspiring to the role, the demise of the national treasure is one way to chronicle over a decade of political division and cultural atomisation.
Stephen Fry (yes, he was on the 2010 list) seemed to crown the end of this strange era in his trip to Ukraine in early September. In President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, the bumbling, half apologetic figure of Fry revealed the national treasure mystique had long since faded. Ukraine had hoped for something useful – more weapons perhaps; instead the presenter of QI turned up. Moreover, upon his return, Fry seemed changed from his days of Twitter whimsy. A Sunday morning appearance on the BBC conjured up the repressed spirit of a bitter estranged uncle in a rosé-driven red mist. Brexit: “a disaster we feel deep in our bones.” AI and climate change: “a tsunami coming towards us.” A man who rose to fame as a comedian was no longer a source of comfort and reassurance. He was a harbinger of doom.
[See also: Xi Jinping’s death wish]
A similar trajectory can be observed in those other treasures still standing. David Attenborough tells the UN that “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”. Such apocalyptic pronouncements have seen Attenborough become a culture war pawn, with the BBC clumsily pre-empting a right-wing backlash by pulling from broadcast an episode of his Wild Isles series that focused on the destruction of nature across the UK. An adjacent jewel, John Cleese, has found himself on the other side of the battlefield, with appearances on GB News having promised to cater to a demographic who like him, he proudly declares on a promo for the channel, are “out of touch” with the political and cultural zeitgeist.
The medium which propelled these figures is dying. Mass television audiences are a thing of the past. The BBC’s cultural reach has lagged behind the inexplicable vagaries of social media that now dictate trends. It’s feasible that online sensations such as the train-spotter Francis Bourgeois have more of a claim to national treasuredom – or twee, self-indulgent gentleness – than the cavalcade of instantly forgettable figures run through the mill of Strictly Come Dancing.
Such a trend is indicative of a broader cynicism now directed to public life and the institutions that it. As the fallout from the investigation into Russell Brand lingers, worshipping any figure of public notoriety has become an activity fraught with danger. This is a nation that has seen the homely teatime Coast star Neil Oliver go from talking about fossils on Chesil Beach to delivering sermons on GB News warning viewers of a “silent war”, waged by politicians against the people. After a flurry of scandals, from Huw Edwards to Captain Tom Moore’s charity, any figure who receives the mass affection of the British public ends up being treated with suspicion.
This caution has also filtered through to political life. A clear break can be observed from the era of Tony Blair and David Cameron, whose carefully curated cultural endorsements – from Britpop to Benny Hill – attempted to connect with voters through the lens of Cringe Britannia. With little common cultural currency left, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer find themselves picking at the even more innocuous dregs of clichés and globalised fads. See Starmer nervously toying with beautiful game, or Sunak embracing Taylor Swift and the dreary hobbies of a home counties dad.
As facile and empty as the national treasure may have seemed, its departure has left a sizeable tear in the fabric of British life. There is a broader phenomenon here: the demise of the old guard of treasures has left few intergenerational, beloved cross-party political figures that can help us make sense of our identity in the brave new world of King Charles III and Global Britain. In his masterpiece, All In It Together, the historian Alwyn Turner was able to piece together a map of national heroes, villains, concerns and fads in the public eye that became bellwethers for a country sleepwalking into 2016. These days it feels much harder to detect such threads. The relationship between the public and mass culture seems to have been severed. In its wake confusion and indifference reign.
The art critic Pierre D’Alancaisez recently remarked how the culture war was becoming culture itself, an age in which any personality or movement must first be categorised through the lens of the day’s issues. The political fight for the overnight star Oliver Anthony in the US laid bare this phenomenon. Was the country singer a conservative or a blue collar Bidenomics guy? Was he, heaven forbid, actually just woke?
This precedent poses problems for any remaining aspirants to the throne of national treasure. The game of deciding who now projects Britain’s soft power is still there to play. It reveals something else too. Ask somebody who they think a national treasure is today, and all they tell you are their own personal prejudices.
[See also: The EU’s great power delusions]