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Golden thread, national myth

Those behind the new Labour revolution are beginning to realise that to discard our heritage is also to discard our history.

The makers of The Devil's Whore, Channel 4’s recently screened extravaganza set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, must have been especially excited by the arrest of Damian Green. Certainly, it is hard to know what more the Metropolitan Police could have done, short of donning floppy lace collars and pursuing parliamentarians across Marston Moor, to highlight the topicality of the drama’s themes. The centrepiece of the first episode was the notorious attempt by Charles I to seize five troublesome members from the very Parliament House itself.


Leading Tories hurried to anoint their immigration spokesman a martyr for liberty


"All my birds have flown," intoned the actor Peter Capaldi, looking resplendent in a flowing Cavalier wig - for Charles, who was always a stickler for good manners, no matter what his other faults, had naturally made sure to enter the chamber without a hat. The police who arrested Damian Green seem not to have been quite so sensitive to protocol. No wonder that leading Conservatives, scarcely able to believe their luck, should have hurried to anoint their immigration spokesman a martyr for liberty, a hero in the grand tradition of John Lilburne and John Pym. "This," warned Michael Howard portentously, "is the sort of thing that led to the start of the Civil War."

A bit rich, it might have been thought, coming from a man whose tenure as home secretary had suggested that he would rather have relished the reintroduction of the pillory. And yet, instead of laughing at Howard's analogy, commentators gave it so much airtime that now, several weeks on, it has become a virtual given. MPs in particular have shown themselves to be hugely keen on it - and on the left as well as the right. Perhaps this is not wholly surprising. Principle is invariably the stronger when fused with self-regard. That parliament is the guarantor of British liberties, and that an assault upon its privileges is an assault upon all the British people: here are presumptions fit to energise any member, Labour no less than Tory. A respect for history does not have to be the mark of a Conservative, after all - a truth so self-evident that already, well before the fingering of the Ashford One, it was serving to generate improbable alliances across the party divide.

Prior to Green's arrest, the single most bizarre political event of the year was surely David Davis's forcing of a by- election in his own constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, in protest against what he saw as the government's infringement of civil liberties - a démarche enthusiastically backed by none other than that old leveller, Tony Benn. Both men, attempting to explain what appeared to many a thoroughly quixotic venture, made great play with abstract nouns - "freedoms", "rights", and so on - and yet it was evident that their truest inspiration derived not from political theory, but from their understanding of Britain's past.

Just as the revolutionaries during the Civil Wars, even as they set about turning the world upside down, had claimed to be fighting in defence of their country's ancient laws, so too did Davis and Benn. "This Sunday," Davis announced in his resignation speech, "is the anniversary of Magna Carta, a document that guarantees the fundamental element of British freedom, habeas corpus." Parliament, by tamely kowtowing to the 42-day detention plan, had shown itself to be not the defender of British liberty, but rather its jailer. As Benn, shaking his head more in sorrow than in anger, put it: "I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day Magna Carta was repealed."

In January 2006, in a speech to the Fabian Society, Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, had spelled out in language no less emotive than Benn’s what he saw as the essence of the country he would soon be leading. There was, he argued, “a golden thread which runs through British history” – and where did the thread begin, if not “that long ago day in Runnymede”? And who better to continue weaving it – by implication – than the Honourable Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath? Two years on, even as civil liberties campaigners continue to cast him as King John redivivus, the Prime Minister surely retains the invincible conviction that if anyone is the true defender of Magna Carta, it is himself.

Parliament, by tamely kowtowing to the 42-day detention plan, had shown itself to be not the defender of British liberty, but its jailer

All of which might seem to suggest, with both supporters and opponents of the government's anti-terrorism legislation busy laying claim to the legacy of Runnymede, that one side must have it badly wrong. But this is not necessarily so - it is well to remember that Magna Carta has always been hedged by ambiguity. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely what enabled it to be sealed in the first place: the ability of both the king and his enemies to find in it what they pleased. "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined," declared its most famous chapter, ". . . except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land." A teasingly Delphic statement: does the second clause serve to buttress or to qualify the first? It is not entirely clear. Either it is freedom from the oppression of unjust legislation that is being prescribed, or else it is freedom under the law, a subtly different thing, because laws may always be changed. The tension between these two interpretations has persisted ever since the tents were first packed away at Runnymede - nor, evidently, has it been settled now. The "golden thread" of British liberty remains what it has always been: a thing of glittering and tantalising ambivalence.

All of which, to many, has long been a source of frustration. What value the mystique of Magna Carta and its centuries-old inheritance, when it is capable of being interpreted in such mutually opposed ways? Yet it is possible to argue that what it may lack in clarity it more than makes up for as a myth. If it is true, as the political historian Benedict Anderson argued, that a nation is an "imagined community", then what gives shape to a nation's collective imaginings is inevitably what most effectively reflects the widest possible spectrum of its people's principles and beliefs.

That is why the most potent national myths of all have invariably been those most susceptible to multiple readings - and most capable of evolving in response to change. For that, the surest evidence this year lay not in Britain, but across the Atlantic, in another democracy with an enduring taste for self-mythologisation: the United States of America.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." So spoke President-elect Barack Obama in his victory speech. A politician of the centre left, the son of a Kenyan goat farmer, an African American, he signalled, with his very opening sentence, that he was subscribing to the time-honoured narrative which had always served to burnish his country's elevated sense of itself. Unsurprisingly, among those hostile to the very notion of the nation state, and to the United States in particular, this served to raise the odd eyebrow. Writing in the New Statesman in November, John Pilger complained that Obama's oratory was nothing more than the honeyed expression of the "brainwashing placed on most Americans from a tender age: that theirs is the most superior society in the world". Even blunter was Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command. The president-elect, he sneered, was like a "house slave". Rather than labouring in the cause of a universal caliphate, as his Muslim heritage might have inspired him to do, Obama had instead bought into the per nicious ideology of those slave-owning hypocrites, the Founding Fathers. Black he might be - but he was no less the white man's stooge for that.

A bleak and bitter assessment. No doubt, as Obama himself has wryly acknowledged, he is indeed doomed to disappoint. And yet one can acknowledge as much while still recognising in his invocation of the venerable archetypes of American patriotism something nobler than a betrayal of the colour of his skin. After all, far from casting a veil over slavery, he opted, in his very first speech as president-elect, to make it the climax of his address.

The historical narrative Obama delivered that night, rich with allusions to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Gettysburg Address, could hardly be reckoned to have redounded un ambiguously to his country's credit: for the achievements that it chronicled would never have been necessary without America's original sin. Yet the speech, far from subverting the founding myths of American democracy, served ultimately to buttress them: for a myth is hardly diminished, and may even be enhanced, by being framed as a tragedy. "That's the true genius of America, that America can change. Our union can be perfected." Here were convictions as old as the Republic itself, and yet, coming from Obama, they hinted at darkness as well as light: of how America, having originally betrayed her own noblest ideals, must continue with her quest for expiation.

It goes without saying that there are many Americans - white, patriotic, moose-hunting Americans - who viscerally disagree with this reworking of their nation's founding story. That, however, is precisely the measure of the narrative's astounding potency: that it can serve to stir the souls of both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, Republican and Democrat, evangelical and liberal. Even beyond the limits of the party system, on the radical fringes of which both Pilger, and possibly even Ayman al-Zawahiri, would presumably approve, the paradigms of American history have maintained something of their implacable grip. When Gil Scott-Heron, that bard of black militancy, eviscerated American mythology in his classic song "Winter in America", his anger was all the more savage for being blended with such evident disappointment. The constitution, in Scott-Heron's reading of American history, has never amounted to anything - and yet it remains, for all that, "a noble piece of paper". Winter in America it might be - and yet always there is the ghost of the summer that should have been.

The role given to Britain in this American master-narrative has usually been an inglorious one. What King John was to Magna Carta, George III was to the constitution of the United States. Yet it is telling that Scott-Heron, in the very opening line of his great song, should have chosen to name-check the Pilgrim Fathers. If it was colonists from Britain who brought both land-hunger and slavery to the New World, then so, too, did they bring what would end up as the ideals of the infant Republic. An interpretation of Magna Carta which saw it as "such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign" served as no less of an inspiration to the Thirteen Colonies than it would to rebels against absolutism during the British Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution. What should lie embedded within the Fifth Amendment to the US constitution, that "noble piece of paper", is the most celebrated of Magna Carta's chapters: a guarantee that "no person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law". Woven into the very fabric of American history, then, is that very same "golden thread" which Gordon Brown, in his speech to the Fabian Society, had identified as British: the "golden thread" of liberty.

What has always been the key to understanding radicalism in this country is that it looks for inspiration not in the future, but in the past

No wonder the soon-to-be prime minister showed himself to be not a little jealous of Yankee grandstanding. “Even before America made it its own,” he protested plaintively in the same Fabian Society speech, “I think Britain can lay claim to the idea of liberty.” The speech itself, with its tortured analysis of “Britishness” and its proposal for a national “British Day”, was almost universally derided as a floundering expedient, a desperate ploy to stop Brown’s fellow Scots from leaving the United Kingdom, and radical Islamists from blowing themselves up on Tube trains. Yet, in truth, there was a sadness about it, and a sense of loneliness which marked it out as the very opposite of cynical. Brown’s tone was that of a man labouring to jerry-build a Skoda, who suddenly realises he has had a Rolls-Royce sitting mothballed in his garage all along.

For almost a decade, the government in which he was such a dominant figure had been promoting a vision of Britain as a blissed-out, baggage-free place, one far too hip to bother with anything so terminally un-Cool Britannia as the past. If that attitude presented new Labour with some fairly obvious targets - fox-hunting, Black Rod, and the like - it also obliged them to trash the Labour Party's own heritage. It was not only Clause Four that had been cheerfully junked. So, too, was the venerable narrative that had enabled an old romantic such as Tony Benn to believe himself the heir of Wat Tyler, the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Heroes of the common people such figures may have been, but they were dead, they were white, they were European, and they were mostly male. Certainly, to the Young Turks of new Labour, it appeared hard to imagine anything less expressive of cosmopolitanism or diversity than Our Island Story. Only Gordon Brown seems to have paused, to have had second thoughts, to have wondered, in his customarily earnest way, whether there was not possibly the risk of losing something important along the way.

And he was right to wonder - as the campaign against his own anti-terror legislation, ironically enough, has served to suggest. After all, despite the best efforts of Davis and Benn, the person who has most tirelessly invoked Magna Carta over the past few years is decidedly not an Anglo-Saxon male. It is pushing things, perhaps, to cast Shami Chakrabarti as the British Barack Obama; and yet there is no question that, just like Obama, she is invoking themes and narratives that have hitherto tended to be seen as hideously white. It was the failure of our history to reflect today's multicultural reality that originally persuaded the government to brand Britain as a "young country" - as though the thousand years and more that have passed since its constituent kingdoms were first established could simply be magicked away. Chakrabarti's term of office at Liberty has served to emphasise just how otiose the whole manoeuvre was. By praising the "golden thread" of the nation's inheritance in terms that would embarrass many a white liberal, she and her fellow campaigners for civil liberties have disinterred a venerable historical narrative, one that sees the flow of our traditions much as Wordsworth did, as "the Flood of British freedom". In doing so, they are illustrating once again what has always been the key to understanding radicalism in this country: that it looks for inspiration not in the future, but in the past. As another poet, even greater than Wordsworth, once put it: "I did but prompt the age to quit their cloggs/By the known rules of antient libertie."

Evidently, we live in a sceptical, deconstructive age. The identification of Britain’s evolution with the march of enlightenment – what Herbert Butterfield, back in 1931, termed “the Whig interpretation of history” – has long fallen from academic favour. Meanwhile, in universities and secondary schools, the teaching of history is becoming ever more modular and fragmented, while in primary schools, if the government’s senior education adviser Sir Jim Rose has his way, the subject will soon cease to be a distinctive field of study at all. And yet, against the odds, 2008 should be remembered as the year in which Our Island Story made a spectacular comeback: not as a fantasy of the heritage industry, but rather as a storm-centre of political life; not as a triumphalist narrative, but as one shaded by disappointment no less than achievement; not as a thing uncontested, but as the very stuff of urgent, furious debate. A story, in short, that might well merit a measure of reconstruction.

Come the New Year, the government will announce its decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. If, as expected, expansion is given the green light, a whole village will need to be obliterated: not only houses, but pubs, a school and a church dating back to the Domesday Book. Such is progress, perhaps; and yet not even the most rabid enthusiast for air travel would argue that the whole of Britain be concreted over, that the entire country be transformed into a mere transit hub with shops. Yet that is what we may well end up inhabiting, should we forget the history that has shaped us, the narratives, the themes and, yes, the myths as well.

We live in an age when the issues that have shaped the grand sweep of Britain's past - issues of security and personal freedom, of identity and dissidence - are coming back into ever more pressing focus, of no less interest to the terrorist suspect banged up in Belmarsh than to the Eurosceptic brandishing a Union Jack.

To let the memories of Our Island Story fade is not to give a vote of confidence to a progressive and multicultural future, but to diminish it. To paraphrase 1066 and All That - it risks seeing more than History come to a.

Tom Holland's "Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom" is published by Little, Brown (£25)

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He is the author most recently of Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special