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Michael Sheen: We are a nation in search of a story

Britain is divided by class, race, faith and history. For his guest-edited issue of the New Statesman, the actor and activist asks: what is the thread that holds us together?

By Michael Sheen

So, what’s the story? Our story. The story of Britain. No, I don’t mean our history. That’s there for all to see. I mean, what’s our underlying story? Our myth. The story we tell ourselves without having to speak it. The story that shapes us. The story that tells us who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going and what matters to us.

We may not have ever voiced it, even to ourselves. But it is undoubtedly there. After all, we have a feeling for what is “not British”. “That’s not who we are!” “Is that who we’ve become?” “That’s not the Britain I know.”

Is it something like the Great American Dream? The story that says no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything, become whatever you want to be – even president. From Hicksville, US, to a Shining City on a Hill, all is equal in the Land of Opportunity.

But this is no New World. We are not quite so open to such fresh-faced adventures here in the Old World, where streets paved with gold are pretty much consigned to panto. This is Blighty. The Sceptred Isle. Britannia. Land of Hope and Glory. This is Albion. Almost all the alternative names for Britain are interchangeable as names for England, and that, in itself, tells a story.

It is difficult to think of stories that are truly British. There are plenty of English stories that have been dressed up as British and become, through sheer force of repetition, accepted as such. Or stories that do involve the other home nations – but which are tales of conflict, either full-blown war and conquest, or internecine scuffling.

Where are the stories that represent the totality of the British experience, regardless of class, creed or colour? Is this an Agatha Christie story, in which we’re all a bunch of eccentrics, acutely aware of social divisions, our cupboards bursting with skeletons – and where it turns out that we all did it? Or perhaps it’s less a story and more a format these days: a reality game show where anyone can be a celebrity, we all eat arseholes and our showstopper is voting anyone we don’t like off the island. What says more about our Britishness these days: the Bond films or the Barnett formula?

If there is one underlying story that informs our collective unconscious, it has something to do with the Second World War – a monumental national endeavour that pitted this island race against the forces of darkness. Class, ethnicity, faith and more shaped people’s experiences during that period, too, but as an origin story for all that has come after, the war still packs a national punch.

The values of that time were made explicit in postwar social reforms, and in the formation of the NHS. This partly explains why the subject of our health service remains such an emotive and powerful one. Apart from anything else, it is one of the few examples of a living story that points to the possibility of a truly national unity.

It also suggests that, if Britain does have an underlying story, it can and must change over time. Like the priest-king in James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, one guiding story secretly watches over its people in the knowledge that, some day, a new and more vital tale will enter the sacred grove and, in an act of ritual slaughter, take its place. Ask anyone who remembers what life was like in working-class communities before the NHS and it’s clear there was a very different national story then – certainly not one based in any sense of solidarity or fairness. This story lives on in those who peddle a nostalgia for the “glory days” of a British past, marrying a pro privatisation ideology with an appeal to the more right-wing attitudes within working-class communities.

One story can’t do the telling for the whole mass of experiences contained on this island, Albion. In my own nation of Gwalia, it is the very fractured nature of our identities that defines us. I wrote at the beginning that our history is there for all to see – but that’s not really true, is it? Our history can be as difficult to pin down as any other story. It depends on who’s writing it.

One of the greatest history programmes ever produced on these shores was The Dragon Has Two Tongues. Broadcast by HTV and Channel 4 in 1985, it was co-presented by the fiery Marxist historian Gwyn Alf Williams and the affable, more establishment figure of the journalist and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. In this extraordinary 13-part series, the pair slugged it out over two very different interpretations of Welsh history. Criminally, it hasn’t been shown on UK television since – and that tells its own story, too.

Different stories suit different ideologies. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” story, like the Great American Dream, is more attractive to a right-leaning, “Handouts make people lazy”, “If I can do it, anyone can” demographic. See also: “There’s no such thing as white privilege,” and the idea that there is a deserving and an undeserving poor.

Meanwhile, some variation on “the whole system is rigged” theory is more appealing to those on the left. This can create a few difficulties around notions of personal responsibility and, for those who have achieved what might be considered “success” within this “rigged system”, sometimes, ironically, an unspoken and perhaps even unconscious belief in a meritocracy. Unlike their counterparts on the right, they presumably see themselves as islands of merit within an ocean of unfairness. These contradictions partly explain why the left has found it so difficult to come up with compelling narratives when it has mattered recently – even when the majority of our professional storytellers consider themselves firmly on the progressive side of politics.

As Daniel G Williams writes in his introduction to Who Speaks for Wales?, a collection of essays on Welsh culture and identity by the great socialist writer Raymond Williams, a cultural definition of the nation leads “to one of two highly problematic positions: an authoritarian monoculturalism, where the culture of one ethnic or linguistic group is promoted as the only ‘authentic’ national culture, or a self-frustrating libertarianism where any claim to national distinctiveness evaporates as the ‘nation’ is regarded as a vessel in which a limitless plurality of cultures may co-inhabit and co-exist with equal validity”.

Which of our stories might form a vessel capable of navigating these stormy, treacherous seas? Are Alba, Gwalia, Tuaisceart Éireann and Loegria better as one fleet, or as separate though related voyagers? I started by asking what our story is, but perhaps the more important question is: who gets to tell it? Who are the gatekeepers of the British experience? The privately educated are hugely over-represented across nearly every British profession, and particularly those that set our cultural narratives: editors, journalists, publishers, politicians, the judiciary. Not everyone has an equal opportunity to tell their story. Or, perhaps more accurately, to tell it on their own terms.

There’s a huge difference between speaking to people and speaking for them. Having your story told to you, if at all, has been the experience of too many people. The distortions and outright lies that can get embedded in our national consciousness as a result can have hugely destabilising long-term effects. The more we hear from under-represented people about their own experiences, recounted on their own terms, the richer our understanding of who we really are. It was this that led me to co found A Writing Chance, a mentoring scheme that supports under-represented voices in journalism: you can read their stories on page 66.

Who doesn’t benefit from that? Surely, it advantages us as a nation to have a clear understanding of the conversations within all our communities, not just those that can afford to have their voices amplified. Otherwise, at best, we will continue to lurch from one seismic cultural shock to another. At worst, as Raymond Williams prophesied in a 1976 talk entitled “Are We Becoming More Divided?”, “this complex industrial society will smash itself up, with increasing hatred and bitterness, not in spite of but because of the imposed and artificial unity which the existing system is now fighting to maintain”.

The stakes are high. Can that unity be more than artificial? Is there a story we could tell about ourselves that is authentic and inclusive and fair? Can it lead us forward together – or is it time to face the reality that no story can span us as one body any longer? Perhaps it never could.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain