I have been working on the final proofs of my forthcoming book, Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England (Picador). When I started thinking about the book parliament was deadlocked over Brexit, and I wanted to know whether we as Britons, riven and polarised as we were, still shared some underlying common experience, something that could hold us together in all our difference, in spite of our differences. Was it appropriate even to speak of Britain as a single, united country in an era of rising English and Scottish nationalism? The pandemic made that question seem even more relevant.
Spanning the years between the election of New Labour and the aftermath of the pandemic, the book explores how England has changed and how those changes have created the anxious political culture of today. And I mean England, the nation in which I was born and have lived all my life, rather than Britain or the United Kingdom. To paraphrase George Orwell, it is of the deepest importance to try to determine what England is before guessing what part it can play in the huge events that are happening – especially when, as Peter Mandler has written in his book The English National Character, “It is today very difficult to project any vision of ‘national identity’ that can satisfy even a simple majority of the country, and virtually impossible to project an idea of ‘national character’ – a psychological profile – that even a small minority recognises in itself.”
I examine contemporary England through a handful of the key news stories of recent times – the death of the Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, the repatriation of the fallen soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the town of Wootton Bassett, the flight of the Bethnal Green girls to the Islamic State, Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate’s remaking of England football culture – and try to explain what they revealed about the state of the changing nation. And in doing so I want to show the common threads that unite my characters and these stories, whether they are attitudes to class, nation, identity, race, migration, or religion.
John Gray, for whom progress is never linear and human knowledge is ethically ambiguous, draws a distinction between optimism and hope. “An optimist is someone who believes they can find strong reasons for a positive view of the human predicament,” Gray says. “I think that the human predicament is hopeful because the very absence of any such reasons evokes the best things in human beings, which are stoicism, self-assertion against fate, resisting aspects of one’s environment that thwart human fulfilment.”
I like this subtle distinction because it feels closer to the truth of how we experience our lives. Tony Blair is a strident optimist and he led Britain into the Iraq War, with lethal consequences. The ultra-Brexiteers who boast about a buccaneering “Global Britain” are optimists, even though the country they aspire to lead seems to exist only in their imagination. Boris Johnson is an optimist (or purports to be). So beware of excessive optimism while remaining hopeful: a good guide for the New Year.
What do you remember most when reflecting on the early weeks of the first lockdown? The radiant spring weather; the dislocation; the strange silences as schools and offices closed; the creeping sense of fear? Back then, before we had vaccines, we were all working out how to live under quarantine. Since the financial crash, British politics has been confused and disordered, and so has the politics of other Western liberal democracies, not least the United States. But as a fragmenting, post-imperial, multinational state – the only country ever to have left the EU – Britain has its own unique particularities and vulnerabilities. Since the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the UK has been in a state of near-permanent crisis, and this is no time to undo the seat belt: there is more turbulence to come, with the SNP set on a second make-or-break referendum.
On Easter Sunday in 2020, in a sermon delivered from his kitchen because of the closure of places of worship, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke of how we were experiencing, despite our social isolation, the “resurrection of our common life”. “After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS… we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal.”
Speaking to the Times, Simon Henderson, headmaster of Eton, caught the national mood back then when he said that the alternative to solidarity was death. “I hope we will have realised that what we really value as a society is compassion, community and civic responsibility. Many of those who work in the lowest-paid roles are in fact the key to our survival… That can’t just be forgotten.”
But has it been forgotten already? The pandemic was a turning point in history. Covid was the Big One: a once-in-a-century shock; probing our vulnerabilities; tearing at the essence of our humanity; testing our economic, medical and moral resilience; exposing the fragility of our global interconnections; intensifying geopolitical rivalries.
Today, after Brexit, in these times, it seems to me there’s even greater need for narrative, for stories that can help us make sense of the world – because the stories we tell can tell us who we are. I wish all our readers, in print and online, a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special