Comment: Where are the intellectuals who will show England the way forward?
Sunday 02 November 1997
In Germany, another enormous row about writers and politics has broken out. As usual, it was provoked by the novelist Gunter Grass. He has just turned 70, and his latest book is an unexpectedly mild collection of poetry and nature drawings. This tempted some critics to conclude that the old boy was an extinct volcano. They were wrong. In a speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair, at a ceremony awarding the book trade's "Peace Prize" to the Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal, Grass flew at the moral jugular of modern Germany. He accused his country of "closet racialism" for its treatment of foreign asylum seekers, and attacked the government for supporting the Turkish regime in its war against the Kurds.
The row rages at two levels. The first is whether Grass's charges are well-founded (the party secretary of the ruling Christian Democrats made a fool of himself by proclaiming that Grass had "departed from the ranks of writers who deserve to be taken seriously"). The second, more interesting argument is about the changing role of writers.
In German and Central European history, the literary intellectual was accepted as the conscience of the nation. As recently as 1989, poets and playwrights led their peoples to the barricades against tyranny, from Lithuania to Romania. In post-war Germany, Grass was among the writers who battered the politicians (sometimes unfairly) with insults for their cowardice in the face of the Nazi past, their tin ear for democracy and their lurking xenophobia. But has the time for all that passed?
European society has changed, and perhaps the writer-as-public-conscience belongs to history. Many German writers welcomed the Grass outburst at Frankfurt with delight. Their critics, however, pointed out that they belonged to the same, ageing generation which has largely withdrawn from political battles in recent years. In the last 15 years or so, their "claim to omnipotence" had grown obsolete. The last real attempt by German intellectuals to lead was the appearance of East German writers in the mass rallies of November 1989, as the Wall fell. But their dream was of a new but still separate East German state, and the tidal wave of enthusiasm for German unity soon swept them away.
The nation, with its nation-state, was the stadium in which these "omnipotent intellectuals" played. But now, so German critics claim, the nation as a cultural and political unit is being washed away. Everything is going global, and there is no longer a distinct "national conscience" for novelists and poets to appeal to.
But Britain, economically thriving and yet culturally disintegrating, could be a different case. One national conscience (or consciousness) may be fading. But three submerged ones - Scottish, Welsh and English - seem to be emerging in its place. There is enormous confusion over identity, above all in England. Isn't it up to English writers and thinkers to answer the question: Who are we, and what are we like?
In the past, Britain was famously irreverent to its intellectuals. They have always been invited to get on with their books and leave "the real world" to bankers, barristers and Ministers of Bread-and-Butter. In practice, writers have constantly disobeyed orders, preaching against social injustice or satirising Establish- ments. But they have never been taken seriously as a collective "conscience".
British literary prize-givings are commercial, media-driven affairs, much like Oscar ceremonies, in which winners are expected to simper a few words of thanks and then get off the stage. John Berger bucked this pattern in 1972, when he won the Booker Prize with his novel G and managed to say some telling things about the activities of big companies like Booker Bros in the Third World. But we have nothing like the great German- language awards, the Heinrich Heine Prize or the Peace Prize, at which both winner and introducer deliver majestic cultural sermons, laboured over for months and then reprinted or broadcast all over the land.
The fact remains that England now badly needs a platform from which men and women with passionate imaginations can survey their nation and report what they see. (The Scots and the Welsh face similar problems, but their prospect is less confusing.) England is too urgent an issue to be abandoned to right-wing politicians. An alarmed article in the current Spectator, by Edward Heathcote Amory, claims that members of the Tory Shadow Cabinet now speak privately in favour of "English independence", and that the Unionist tradition of the party is giving way to talk about an English parliament within a federal system.
"In all too many cases", he writes, "[the Tories] are opting for easy and populist English nationalism in their attempt to redefine both their party and their country." Seen from London, the chances of rebuilding Toryism in Scotland and Wales, after May's election wipe-outs there, seem insignificant. And, as Heathcote Amory rightly says, the dilemma over Europe is also helping to drive the Conservative Party towards English nationalism. William Hague's decision last week to reject British membership of European Monetary Union did not merely split his party. It put it on an anti-European track which is absolutely unacceptable to the non-English parts of the United Kingdom. If Hague is to find any mass public support for his new policy of Europhobia and insularity (and he may not find one at all), it can only be in England.
To leave the "invention of England" to the panicky rabble around Mr Hague would be criminal negligence. Some of them do not even know where England is. In an otherwise touching Prospect article by John Keegan about British war graves, I read that "the English vision is particularly present in the Cotswolds ... in the South Hams of Devonshire, in Thomas Hardy's Dorset, along the Welsh marches of Herefordshire and Shropshire, in Beatrix Potter country ... in the Kipling territory of remoter Kent and Sussex." Whose "vision" is this, of a ruralist paradise which has no cities, no factories, and no inhabitants north of the Trent except for Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle?
Mr Keegan is a fine military historian, and I wouldn't count him among any "panicky rabble". But his words illustrate the terrifying lack of consensus about the very outlines of Englishness. The last generation of English writers who wrote about their own nation with unaffected love - Rupert Brooke, G K Chesterton, A E Housman, John Masefield - were clearer about the country's identity. Surely it is possible today to love England and be grown-up at the same time, to delight in the actually-existing England that Blake Morrison, Kate Atkinson or Ian McEwan write about.
English nationalism, in short, must not be left to the extreme right. Politically, it has no chance of power for the moment. But England is going to return to national self-consciousness in Tony Blair's time, whether he likes it or not. Nation-forging has always been a work of the imagination, and it is for England's intellectuals to accept that responsibility. Only they can rescue their country from the politics of backward-looking, ethnic resentment. They can - and they should.
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