‘Iwill never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party Conference is part of a long tradition whereby Britishness has been defined primarily by reference to a real or an imaginary Other. Understandably so, since defining this entity in its own terms has always been problematic and is fast becoming more so.
In part, and paradoxically, this is because the British nation has experienced such comparatively stable development since its invention in 1707. The French and the Irish can assert their common identity (whether it exists or not) by reference to recent liberation from foreign rule, the Germans can celebrate their post-war resurgence and re-union, the Americans can coalesce around a particular version of the War of Independence, and even around a nostalgic interpretation of their Civil War, but contemporary Britons are much less likely to find history useful in this respect. The invasions, revolutions and civil wars that occurred in their past are now simply too distant in time to supply effective signposts to identity. This was not always the case of course. Eighteenth and even 19th-century Britons celebrated a range of patriotic anniversaries, most of them to do with resistance to Roman Catholicism. And even when the memory of these wore thin, there were so many other powerful cements. Insular geography, overwhelming Protestantism, and a cult of Parliament kept the three parts of Great Britain together, as did an extraordinary range of joint successes: success in war, success in empire, success in trade and success in pioneering industry.
Looked at in this way, some of the reasons why late-20th-century Britons are increasingly at odds about who they are seem clear enough. The invention of the aeroplane and the telephone, followed by the advent of mass tourism and membership of the EEC, have made this island’s physical disjunction from the Continent far less influential than it was. Protestantism is no longer overwhelmingly the majority religion. There are now more practising Catholics than practising Anglicans in Britain, more Moslems than Methodists. The Mother of Parliaments, too, has lost some of her prestige and much of her power, and seems to many now to be inequitably elected. Finally and transparently, success has become elusive. The Empire has gone. There are unlikely to be any more attractive and victorious wars. Commercial supremacy has long since fled, and so have the triumphs of our Industrial Revolution. The recent surge in sympathy for the coal miners and the current outcry over the dismantling of British Rail suggest how deeply we still feel the loss of this last distinction. Out-of-work miners appear somehow more deserving than the rest of the unemployed, and trains command more affection than any other machines in this culture, because coal and the railroads were in the vanguard of our pioneering industrialisation, part of what made us British.
The fact that the Conservative leadership has set its face sternly against both of these symbolic industries is indicative of a much deeper iconoclasm on its part. Despite unvaryingly patriotic rhetoric, Conservative hegemony since 1979 has undoubtedly contributed to the undermining of Britishness. One reason for this, as the Party’s historian Robert Blake comments, is that Tories have always tended towards English nationalism, enjoying electoral paramountcy in the Southern counties, but possessed of far less secure roots in the North or in Wales or in Scotland. Predictably, therefore, the recent protracted Tory dominance has stimulated Celtic protest, just as it did in the late 19th century. What is new, however, is the Thatcherite brand of radicalism which has also worked to divide. The BBC, previously the purveyor of a truly nationwide public culture, has been systematically undermined. The Civil Service, formerly a component of the powerful myth of British official impartiality and incorruptibility, has been openly politicised and arguably debased. National industries which once gave a semblance of uniformity to the life of Britons throughout the island – water, electricity, and in the future trains and the postal system – have been sold off, in some cases to foreign companies. And the tabloid and quality press has until now been allowed to savage the reputation of the British monarchy to an unprecedented degree, in part because 60 per cent of our newspapers are owned by pro-Tory newspaper bosses, the most powerful of whom – once again – are foreign.
It is in this context that the compulsion to explore and unpick British identities which has been so striking among different kinds of writers in the Eighties and early Nineties must be understood. As Raphael Samuel has remarked, it was less Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands War that put questions of patriotism and national identity on the agenda in a new way than the Thatcherites’ dereliction of so many previously-accepted patriotic norms.
Yet none of us is immune to the current dislocation. Each of these four books is rich in insights into both English and British idenitities. But at the same time, and whether their authors are conscious of it or not, all four of them also betray confusion, flux and anxiety. The dust-jacket blurb of James Lees-Milne’s People and Places suggests this right away. His book, it tells us, is an ‘extraordinary, amusing and touching picture ... of an England now lost’. The story will be a familiar one to those who have read his published diaries. In 1936, Lees-Milne joined the National Trust as one of its staff of four. Since its inception in 1895, the Trust had interpreted its mission as it is currently once again beginning to do, concentrating on purchasing particular stretches of land, safeguarding old barns, dovecotes, inns and other smallholdings. Of country houses, however, it then owned only two. But the inter-war depression, coming on top of the First World War’s savaging of blue-blooded heirs and a drastic fall in agricultural prices, changed all that. In 1937 and 1939, Parliament passed legislation enabling desperate country house owners to donate their properties to the Trust in return for tax concessions, continued residence if they so wished and limited public access.
It was Lees-Milne’s task to visit interested owners and explain the scheme. He did so, as he makes clear, in a spirit of passionate and conservative English nationalism. Country houses were ‘our most precious secular shrines just as the cathedrals were their sacred counterparts’. They breathed an ‘ineffable spirit’. Rescuing them was a ‘dedication like nursing or being in Holy Orders’. And seeing ordinary working men invade them was to feel ‘how Muslims feel about infidels entering a mosque with their shoes on’. As he describes the resurrection of 14 of these houses, the protracted negotiations with sad, occasionally brutal and often eccentric patricians, the makeshift repairs with cow-dung and woodworm solution which were all the Trust could then afford, and the miscellaneous experts who offered their services for free, bicycling precious art objects to London for identification or compiling highly imaginative guide-books, such glowing reverence proves contagious. Indeed, if one can tolerate the author’s prejudice – which embraces equally suburbia, socialism, academics, ‘beer-bellied yobs from the inner cities’, and quaintly, ‘the pathetic snobbishness which members of the lower ranks of society can betray’ – this is a wonderful book, a beautifully-written evocation of the country house cult in its early days before the coach trips and the souvenir shops moved in.
What it also reveals, though, are some of the complexities of national identity in the United Kingdom. To begin with, the so-called National Trust was and is responsible for properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but Scotland had and has its own similar yet completely autonomous organisation. Lees-Milne’s chosen houses are all English. Yet to read about them is to be made forcefully aware that Great Britain is not only a composite of three much older nations, but also fractured throughout by regionalism. Henry James is quoted to the effect that Warwickshire ‘is the core and centre of the English world ... unmitigated England’. Conversely, the gardens of Wallington in far Northumberland are Scottish in style. And Blickling in Norfolk is as culturally and visually distinct as if it were ‘the furthest extremity ... of the United Kingdom’. Moreover, Lees-Milne is well aware that the Trust’s activities have served to invent a national past, not just conserve it. Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, he notices, now has a fancy knot garden ‘exactly reproducing what the Tudor Moretons may possibly have had, or if they didn’t, ought to have had’.
And the men and women who inhabit this land of dead but re-imagined great houses do not, Lees-Milne recognises, all see them in the same way. In the epilogue to the book, he mourns that – although ‘as much part of our history as our constitution’ – country houses are no longer a priority even with the National Trust, or with those who share his political views. It was not much better even in the heroic past. He tells of the bereaved parents who scattered the ashes of their dead RAF son in the grounds of Brockhampton, Herefordshire, because, they said, it ‘must be the most beautiful place in England’. But he also tells of the RAF pilots stationed at Blickling during the war who raided its mausoleum, prising open the sarcophagus of a dead countess in search of jewels. They were kept at bay by a Miss O’Sullivan, an Irishwoman for whom the house and its lands were nonetheless a ‘sacred trust’. The same lady strongly believed that the English deserved to lose the war, for theirs was not a Christian cause. So who were the real patriots? And for what?
Such snapshots of discordant individuals are refreshing because more academic studies of patriotism and nationalism are all too inclined to approach these phenomena from above. They focus on the supply-side of national invention – myths, political speeches, the writings of intellectuals and cultural artifacts – but fail to do what is usually far more difficult: establish just how far men and women responded to these promptings and why. This is the main drawback in Michael Dobson’s clever, lucid and scrupulously-researched book about the making of Shakespeare’s national reputation. Part of the current fashion for problematising the literary canon, it argues that there were three main reasons for the rise of Bardolatry after 1660. The plays could be re-written to suit a variety of political situations and lobbies, and they catered to both middle-class ambition and Britain’s drive for empire.
Much of this argument convinces. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and in the fierce party strife of the 1680s, English audiences do seem to have found many of the comedies crude and archaic, while the history plays and tragedies contained too many allusions to murdered monarchs and usurpers to be comfortable. Yet it was this very political content which assisted Shakespeare’s apotheosis. Julius Caesar was adapted so as to legitimise tyrannicide and by implication the events of 1688. And in the 1730s, the opponents of Walpole campaigned (successfully) for a monument to the Bard in Westminster Abbey as a way of advertising their superior patriotism. The actor David Garrick also used the Bard to inflate and dignify his own career, puffing him as the nation’s number-one playwright – just like Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh would go on to do – as a means of representing himself as its number-one actor. He had himself painted and engraved alongside Shakespeare’s bust. And he commissioned Roubiliac to do a sculpture of Shakespeare in the guise of a prosperous self-made professional just like himself. He also re-wrote the plays in accordance with bourgeois sensibilities.
Yet the cult of Shakespeare flourished because he could be plausibly presented as outsoaring mere sectional interests. By the time of Garrick’s jubilee celebrations in Stratford-on-Avon in 1769, Shakespeare was being explicitly described in terms of Great Britain as a whole, not just England. In Garrick’s enormously successful interlude The Jubilee only a certain Captain O’Shoulder, ‘an Irishman’, remains excluded from the junketings, unable to comprehend their significance because of course he is not British and therefore – by implication – must be nothing. ‘Ara, I’ll go home and be nowhere,’ he is made to say. Increasingly, though, it came to be suggested that Shakespeare’s works could be understood and appreciated anywhere, his worldwide currency supplying just one more vivid instance of the appropriateness of Britain’s worldwide dominion. This was emphasised to a still greater extent in the century after Dr Dobson’s book closes. ‘What a triumph it is for him, dear creature,’ Emily Eden would write of Shakespeare’s popularity among educated Indians in the 1830s. ‘Plays that he wrote three hundred years ago acted to a race that were hardly known in his time, and yet who see the truth of his writings just as much as the courtiers of Queen Elizabeth did.’
Literary scholars have been readier than historians to explore how Britain’s 350-year connection with extra-European empire shaped and complicated the identities and patriotisms within it. Even now, imperial history is still sometimes pursued as though it were a matter only of warfare and administration overseas, just as British history has been too often reconstructed in the post-war era as though it occurred only within the boundaries of this island. Yet, as Sir John Seeley argued over a century ago, empire happened not only abroad but also in the minds and imaginations of Britons at home. Neither Stephen Daniels’s collection of essays nor those in Roy Porter’s Myths of the English explore the imperial-domestic connection directly. Yet both books illuminate its importance.
To begin with, and as several of Daniels’s fine, perceptive essays suggest, knowing that they were an imperial people made Britons at once triumphantly arrogant and potentially nervous. Arrogant because so much of the world was coloured red, nervous because the scope of their dominion as against the smallness of their home island seemed unnatural. As a boisterous patriot of a kind, J.M.W. Turner devoted hundreds of canvases to evoking Britain’s pioneering railroads, naval might and thrusting industrial cities. But he also feared that Britain’s Rome might shatter like Carthage. So a picture like The Fighting Temeraire is ambiguous, a celebration, on the one hand, of the new steam power, but also a reminder that obsolescence could overtake even one of the great sailing ships that had won Trafalgar. The likely transience of British glory could strike artists abroad still more powerfully. Thomas Cole, one of two British emigrants to the United States examined here, devoted five canvases to The Course of Empire, tracing the progress of an imaginary society from savage potential to imperial consummation, and on relentlessly to destruction and desolation. Similarly, Gustave Doré, who portrayed London as the busy, smoking heart of the world, also imagined its future ruin, its suburbs reclaimed by nature, the dome of St Paul’s collapsed.
A standard refuge from such nightmares was a retreat into pastoralism at home. As Daniels recognises, different identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive: ‘inside Greater Britain’, as he points out, there regularly ‘lurked little England’. Most of the seminal stages in the British imperial rise and fall were also accompanied by a fresh investment in and invention of Englishness (the same goes for Scottishness and Welshness). This happened in the wake of the daunting conquests of the Seven Years War, for example, and in the manic Scramble for Africa after 1880. It may even be that the current obsession in some quarters with ‘Englishness’ is something of a panic reaction to a very different kind of imperial project, the looming possibility of a larger and more federal Europe. For, as Daniels shows over and over again, Englishness is no more a stable cultural entity than Britishness is.
One of his best essays on the way landscapes are manipulated to prop up identity concerns John Constable’s rural vision. To many – and certainly to the makers of propaganda in both world wars – Constable’s drowsy cottages, studiously picturesque hay-wains, ambling sheep, shining brooks, long-established oak-trees, and sunlit clouds are the essence of England, the yardstick by which its countryside should be judged. Yet, as Daniels points out, Constable was in fact a painter of London, not just of the Stour Valley in Suffolk. It was Victorian biographers and art critics who focused on his rural canvases in part because they offered an escape from so much of what England had become, industrially advanced, aggressively urban, and full of mechanised agriculture. Already, by the 1890s, Thomas Cook was organising tours of Constable country. And during the Second World War, Willy Lot’s house and Flatford Mill were formally acknowledged as shrines by being presented to the National Trust. The irony was that not only had Constable often prettified Suffolk in his paintings to please the punters, but also that this county, like the rest of East Anglia, was in reality as much European as it was English. Historically, it was the Dutch who had shaped much of the East Anglian landscape, just as it was Dutch landscape artists who influenced John Constable.
That the presentation and interpretation of national myths fluctuate over time is also the message of Myths of the English. In his introduction, Roy Porter declares war on today’s fin-de-siècle nostalgia, made even more insidious by this being the finale of a millennium. Just because England/Britain is an old country, he argues, does not mean that its ceremonies and ‘public parables’ are necessarily rooted stably in tradition. Many of them, as the ten contributors to this volume show, were forged in the last half, and particularly in the last quarter, of the 19th century, and have repeatedly shifted in meaning since then.
Thus when Gilbert and Sullivan composed their operas between 1871 and 1896, they designed them as patriotic, if satirical, entertainment for a Victorian England ever more threatened by foreign competition and domestic change. By the inter-war period, however, the Savoy Operas had come to seem harmless and amusing reminders of a golden age of prosperity, confidence and power. Few people noticed that the music was full of echoes of Continental composers, or that Sullivan was in fact an Irishman. As their country shrank on the world stage, Britons became for a while a more subdued and tractable people, seeking diversion certainly, but not violence. Clive Emsley’s sharp essay describes how a marked fall in the crime rate enabled the police to change from being the ‘blue locusts’ of early Victorian plebeian bestiaries, to appearing in the guise of nice, homely Sergeant George Dixon in The Blue Lamp in 1951. David Cressy traces an analogous transformation process in Guy Fawkes night. Choreographed originally by the Church, it had shifted by the early 1800s to being a far more riotous anti-Papist or simply anti-authority festival. By 1900, it was tamer, more commercialised, and almost completely secular and apolitical.
This is a valuable, pungent, if inevitably uneven collection. Yet to approach national identity in this way, as ‘a chest of props and togs ready-to-wear in almost any costume drama, available to fulfil all manner of fantasies’, brings with it certain risks. Most obviously there is a danger of too much cynicism. No one anymore believes that all or even most of our policemen come from Dock Green. But we still see them differently from the way that Americans, for instance, view their police. Commander Dalgleish, like Inspectors Morse and Wexford, and DCI Jane Tenison are all mythical figures. Nonetheless, the fact that they chiefly use their brains to uncover crime, while the protagonists of Miami Vice are more likely to rely on firepower, tells us something important about these two cultures.
Moreover, discussing national identities too exclusively in terms of myth-mongering can give the impression that popular responses are invariably orchestrated from above. Yet this is not so. In an otherwise informative piece, Bob Bushaway argues here that the invention of Remembrance Day ensured that ‘the mass of British society was denied access to a political critique of the war.’ Yet if any authentic national ceremony exists, this one is surely it. The powers-that-be initially assumed that the Cenotaph would be only temporary. It was mass protest that ensured it became a permanent monument, and consequently the hub of the worship of Britain’s war dead. It may well be that these solemn anniversaries did have the effect over the years of lessening post-war turmoil and alienation. But this was not the main official intention at the beginning. And one must at least consider the possibility that for most men and women, private grief and the urge to find rituals to appease it are more compelling than the distant prospect of revolution.
By the same token, one should not exaggerate the likelihood of a future break-up of Britain. Virtually all European nation-states are under pressure at the moment. Compared with many, this one still seems well sewn together. But there are undoubtedly strains in the fabric and incipient tears. How will they be mended? One possibility is a return to the age-old tactic of inciting British union by reference to the threat from without. Much of the routine denunciation of Brussels and its bureaucrats by the press and politicians can be understood in this way: plucky little Britons standing up to the jumped-up foreigner (‘Up yours, Delors!’). So can the more chilling tendency to look for internal enemies against whom ‘real’ Britons can be invited to rally. One of the most applauded speeches at last year’s Conservative Conference was given by the Social Services minister, Peter Lilley. To the chortles of the faithful, he offered a ‘little list’ of Tory bugbears: New Age Travellers, left-wing counsellors and unmarried mothers who – he claimed – got pregnant to jump the housing queues. ‘They’ll none of them be missed.’ he sang: ‘They’ll none of them be missed,’ Culture-watchers will have noticed that in true patriotic fashion he was parodying lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. But it was the executioner’s song.