Ahead of his first visit to the White House as Prime Minister this week, David Cameron published a remarkable op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he lays out his vision for Britain’s future role on the global stage. The piece is a feat of political positioning, and Cameron’s realism about Britain’s status as “junior partner” in the “special relationship” is to be commended. The only jarring note is our glorious leader’s desperate claim that Britain is “a strong, self-confident country, clear in our views and values”.
This is a painful untruth. Loath as we may be to admit it, this country is embroiled in a torturous crisis of identity and purpose, unsure of our collective views, unconvinced of our national values, our confidence profoundly and, some might argue, justly shaken. We are undergoing a systemic and traumatic change in the political settlement that has defined the past two decades of our national self-image, and as our new overlords attempt to relaunch civil society with platitudes about community spirit and £60m pilfered from disused bank accounts to fund a few museum volunteers in Liverpool, even the conservative right can’t offer a stable, positive vision for Britain’s future.
Our culpability in the Deepwater oil disaster, our role in the financial crash of 2008, even our miserable performance at the World Cup, have disturbed the popular impression of Britain as a country that “punches above its weight”. If 2009 was the “summer of rage”, then 2010 is surely the summer of angst. After the rash of “Will you be supporting England?” articles during a certain international kickball competition, England’s dismal result – being knocked out before the quarter-finals by Germany, of all humiliations – was an own goal for the weary mythology of “two world wars and one World Cup”.
Even the liberal press is shuffling with embarrassment about having attached any importance to the games, and it would be crass of those of us who always thought of the World Cup as a silly willy-waving competition to feel in any way vindicated. Britain’s self-esteem is at a chronically low ebb, and this matters for the left as well as the right: extreme nationalist organisations are on the rise, the future looks grim and uncertain, and the bloodier, uglier parts of the past, as evidenced by the Tories’ stated desire to “tell a big story” about the glory days of empire, keep getting brighter and brighter.
Readers of this blog have accused me variously of hating or misunderstanding my country and all the things that make us great. I find this rather harsh. In fact, I think I’m in a unique position to empathise with the current crisis in Britishness, as being a person from the UK in 2010 is not dissimilar to the rather embarrassing emotional trajectory of being a sensitive young person in one’s early twenties.
You’re broke, and making bad choices about your money; you’re unsure who your friends are and worried about a future whose outer edges you can barely imagine; you spend your time guiltily re-examining all those horrendous things you did when the world was younger and meaner, but the navel-gazing is interrupted by bursts of shocking arrogance and gleeful, dirty pride. You had such plans and ambitions, and now the world seems to be moving on without you, leaving you behind; you long most of all for a sense of narrative coherence, for a certain story to tell about who you are and where you’re going.
It is right for the left to worry about Britain’s self-conception, because it affects every aspect of our policy, from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dark hints by Cameron about working with America “for an Iran without the bomb”, to the costly renewal of Trident, and the coalition’s indulgence of the City of London at the expense of the people of Britain.
Paul Gilroy, the historian and author of After Empire, eloquently observes that Britain’s unwillingness to grieve and move on from our former global superpower status is stifling our growth and development as a nation.
“The vanished empire is essentially unmourned,” he writes. “The meaning of its loss remains pending. The chronic, nagging pain of its absence feeds a melancholic attachment.” This despondency fuels a persistent fatalism in our national outlook, a complaisance, even on the left, with cannibalistic neoliberal policymaking, a meek acceptance that the present is unfair and the future will be worse.
This is a ridiculous way for anyone to behave, much less a nation with 2,000 years of illustrious and inglorious history. Britain is not behaving like a “strong, self-confident country”. It is behaving like a country in the middle of a violent and bewildering identity crisis, a country that has deceived its citizens time and time and again in order to prop up its sense of self-importance, a country whose insecurities are doing untold damage to ordinary people in the UK and across the world. It is behaving, in short, like a country that needs to get its act together and grow the hell up.
What characterises a quarter-life or mid-life crisis, as well as mortgaging one’s long-term solvency to pay for expensive bits of bling such as sports cars, international wars and nuclear missile delivery systems, is a sense of lost time: a sense that, whatever happens, the years to come cannot possibly be as eventful, as exciting or as prosperous as the years that have gone by.
This, of course, is nonsense. Britain is a country with a future as well as a past. We may feel ancient and irrelevant, but Britain is a young country, and this is a young planet. We will never again be a superpower, but we have much to contribute to the future of global society, a future which, however stridently world leaders, business owners and neoliberal apologists choose to ignore the fact, will indubitably continue beyond the year 2030.
It is with deep love for my country that I dearly wish the British would grow up, get over ourselves and start planning for that future.