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Britain’s search for a national story

How the UK can heal itself in an age of disorder.

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Who now is our national novelist? Who in fiction captures best the tone of these times, our current anxieties and worries? There are many plausible contenders. So, my apologies to the others but I think the answer is Ali Smith, the Scottish novelist who lives in Cambridge and who has recently published Summer, the fourth in her seasonal series. Though her politics seem to be of the liberal left, that is not – sorry New Statesman – why I choose her. No, it’s because these are four novels of fractured, staccato, interwoven narratives, of bemusement, and dislocation and even dismemberment. Immigrant dreams, floating heads, liminal territories, unlikely meetings. These are stories from a bemused country seeking a national story about itself, and mostly failing to find one. They use modern art, Shakespeare and Dickens, close observation of the natural world, and Smith’s signature eerily clever children to search for keys. Question? One of them, at least is: who are the British?

Each begins with a kind of anguished monologue. The most recent starts: “Everybody said: so? As in so what? As in shoulder shrug, or what do you expect me to do about it?” Another, Winter, begins like this: “God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead…” Autumn? “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”

This tone of barely controlled hysteria resurfaces throughout the four novels and feels very much of our times: 2020 has been a rough, plague-ridden year; and when we consider the prospects for economic revival, a second spike, law and order, and the general effectiveness of institutions and checks we used to take for granted, the rest of the year may be tougher yet.

After the dislocations of coronavirus, and in the midst of cultural wars and nationalist revolt, the question of who we are has rarely felt more urgent. So it’s pleasing that although Ali Smith portrays a Britain seething with paranoia, whose curling narratives are splintered, these islands also turn out to be places of heroism, redemption and renewal.

In this strange autumn of this strange year, here’s a good place to start. No country which lacks an agreed national story can feel complete. We need healing. We need optimism. After the rows over old patriotic songs, and an increasing tension across the generations about the meaning of our history, imperialism included, we seem far away from any of that. But stories need heroes and heroines and if we look properly there are plenty to be found. It’s just that they are rarely on plinths, or cast in bronze.

We have been looking in the wrong places. I have been spending the last couple of years studying attitudinal change in Britain during this Queen’s reign. If, somehow, we could be transported back to 1952 to talk to British people then, I don’t think it’s the differences in our technology, clothing or even body size and body colour that would get the conversation going; but the astonishing differences inside our heads – in our attitudes to hierarchy, class, nationality, race, sexuality, gender and work.

The rate of attitudinal change has been almost surreal but it can be tracked by looking at the change-makers and pioneers. Doing this brings the possibility, at least, of beginning other ways of thinking about ourselves as a country, and even a kind of healing.

The truth is, every generation has a tendency to gather round a national narrative, like some kind of smoky ideological campfire, which suits its time and values. Such stories, bright and unitary, tend to be rather brutally edited. The “Spitfire summer” narrative of lonely military heroism, which has mattered so much to so many for so long, doesn’t linger long on the fall of Singapore, for instance, or the importance of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s. A rival left-wing narrative, based on the foundation of the NHS and emphasising generations of righteous protesters, which sees Britain as an inherently stroppy and progressive country, edits out its long fixation on the monarchy and military, and the highly disciplined, religious and ordered nation we recently were, not to mention the Tory general election victory of 1951.

The question is therefore not about the coherence and completeness of any national narrative; but how useful this story is to those telling it. Does it help make sense of the concerns of the time? Does it bind together citizens of different ages and different places, and focus them on the urgent tasks they face? Today, for instance, almost everybody sees environmental degradation and global warming, and injustice of different kinds, as the big tasks of the hour – though we should add finding a way to earn our living in the world, since any prosperous economic future will have to be based on high technology, inventiveness and design.

There, in environmentalist and socially liberal values and the search for ingenuity, is where we might find the basis of a different national story. Taken together with new stories about the origins of our current thinking on race and gender, that will be more useful in a national narrative about the British for the 2020s, than either one about our fighting spirit in 1940 or Labour’s programme of industrial nationalisation in 1945.

With that in mind, let’s remember other Elizabethans, some of our fellow citizens during this age of nearly 70 years.

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It’s 2 June 1953, Coronation Day. There is only one story in town. Except that’s not true; there’s another. The Times has a scoop: “Britain” (in the shape of the lanky New Zealander Edmund Hillary, and the charismatic Tibetan Tenzing Norgay) has won the race to conquer Everest. Why has the Times got this story? Because it employed one of the most daring and ingenious foreign correspondents at the time, the former soldier James Morris. He had got himself with the British expedition up to base camp, and there devised a code to alert his news desk at home without tipping off rivals. Morris, however, was about to embark on an even bigger journey of his own: having known from a very young age that he was born into the wrong body, Morris was to become one of the first famous British people to change gender – and then as Jan Morris, to become one of our best-loved historical and travel writers.

“Transgender” emphatically isn’t something invented in university campuses in the 21st century. In one way, the Queen’s reign begins with such a story, and Morris’s wasn’t the only example. In 1954, the former Spitfire pilot and racing car driver Roberta Cowell sold her story to the Picture Post. In a similar way, you can find the pioneers who shifted attitudes on sexuality, religion and race from remarkably early on in the era. There were no hashtags, but “me too” is central to the stories of Diana Dors and Sylvia Plath. Long before decriminalisation, there were lively, influential gay and lesbian clubs across Britain. Knowing this doesn’t change anything, of course, but it may make the world we inhabit feel less unfamiliar and even, in some ways, more “British”.

My survey starts with Morris, and ends with Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, and his campaign this June for free school meal vouchers to continue through the summer holidays. When his proposal was rejected initially, he persuaded Tory MPs in the course of winning the argument. At the end of it, he tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together. THIS is England in 2020.”

Between Morris and Rashford I’ve been following a colourful cavalcade of British people who shaped the attitudes that make us who we are now. Some, of course, are politicians, such as (on social issues) Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland and (on Europe) Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. More often they are campaigners, such as those who led the protests over the endless police raids on the Mangrove Club in Notting Hill in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the Bristol bus protesters in 1963, or Jayaben Desai of the Grunwick strikers fame. Black Lives Matter wasn’t shouted, in those words, during earlier fights for equality; but the issues were identical, and the hill the first generation of campaigners had to climb was far steeper. What we need is perspective.

In other cases, the change-makers turn out to be entrepreneurs, such as Vladimir Raitz, the Russian émigré who, after a water polo holiday in Corsica, observing empty beaches and a much better diet than that in Britain, more or less created modern mass package holiday tourism; or Anita Roddick, a pioneer of ethical capitalism in scores of different ways, whose influence today is so pervasive we barely acknowledge it.

In other cases still the pioneers are scientists. One figure who came before the modern Elizabethans, who nevertheless all British children should learn about, is the founder of modern organic farming, Albert Howard. A luxuriantly moustachioed Shropshire farmer’s son, he brought back the principles of Vedic agriculture from India between the wars. His central argument about how we can best retain the fertility of British earth as we demand ever greater quantities of food from it is more urgent than ever. It shapes the look and economics of sustainable farms all over Britain today, and animates a new generation of contemporary nature writers and thinkers.

Topsoil might sound like a secondary issue but it is, literally, fundamental. We either learn to farm differently or our children won’t have enough to eat. As Howard put it: “On the answer to this question, the future of civilisation depends.”

Once you start to look, the evidence of the need for a revived environmentalism is everywhere – from the bright red stain several hundred yards out around the Devon seashore, which shows where topsoil has tumbled into the sea, to the prospect of rising bread prices after a wheat season blighted this year by a scorching spring and sodden summer, and the extraordinary revival of birds and insects as soon as the lockdown cut down polluting air and road travel.


Red spells danger: coastal erosion at Babbacombe Beach on Devon’s southern coast. Credit: Andrew Roland / Alamy

Unsurprisingly, given the intensity of concern today, many of the most interesting and inspiring Elizabethan stories are of pioneering environmentalists. The Worldwide Fund for Nature began with British conservationists. Building on a long history of animal cruelty legislation and science-based zoological work, Britain now finds itself with a leading role in educating other parts of the world about species extinction and the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems. A country which has scrapped one of the world’s biggest fighting navies has discovered a new influence through the images of the BBC Natural History Unit’s camera crew, and the seductive voice of David Attenborough. Less Blue Streak (the ballistic missile system), more Blue Planet.

Not all the change-makers are heroes, and some need reappraisal. Mary Whitehouse is still loathed by many for her homophobia; but she was a righteous pioneer in taking on paedophilia and sadistic porn when most of Britain wanted, squeamishly, to look the other way. Clive Sinclair is still laughed at for his C5 electric vehicle – perhaps simply ahead of its time – but his genius for miniaturisation brought a whole generation into the computer age.

And if you are looking for a villain, can I gently suggest AK Chesterton, now largely forgotten, but the man whose life connected Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (for which he was a violently anti-Semitic propagandist) to the National Front, which he helped found in 1967, via the rampantly anti-Tory, anti-CND League of Empire Loyalists?

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In the hubbub of these Elizabethans, do any clear themes emerge?

Although I found much to be positive about, there was little to encourage simplistic, “rah-rah, we’re better than the rest” tub-thumpery. By the early 1950s, for instance, there were two big British projects. Both failed. The first was an effort, mostly of the left, to build on the NHS to create the world’s most equitable and generous welfare system. The second, more of the right, was to replace the empire with an effective and powerful global reach of a new kind. Neither succeeded, in the end, because during the decades that followed Britain was never quite able to make enough in the world to give itself the living and status it thought it deserved.

Having a sense of perspective about that might give us some clearer priorities for the years ahead. We have a huge job to do in greening the economy; but we have a rich heritage of environmentalist science and advocacy to build upon. We are going to need to earn our way in the world more effectively. But over the past few decades, we have had so many pioneering inventors, technologists and designers – Christopher Cockerell, Alec Issigonis, James Dyson, Zaha Hadid – that we should have some idea what to support, and how.

Whenever we feel our history is problematic and discouraging, the answer tends to be more history, not less; a closer, more nuanced remembering. Older generations need more history to discourage nostalgia; younger ones need more of it to discourage self-righteousness. And most of us need an antidote to the delusion that these times we’re living through are somehow uniquely difficult.

There will be people who regard this as wet, hand-wringing homeopathic patriotism when set against the real gory claymore and sabre-swinging exhilarations of Bannockburn or Waterloo. But I come back to the question: what matters most to us, now? We can’t be a healed or even half-reconciled country on the basis of a national story that means nothing to half the population; nor on the back of the one that sees everything historically British as irredeemably evil. And, at the risk of ending on an entirely self-indulgent note, I would gently add that in healing ourselves, it might be useful to sustain a national broadcaster legally obliged not to scream with outrage every day of the week.

Andrew Marr’s “Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged” is published by William Collins on 1 October

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent