A national heritage that holds us back

The more we as a nation trade on past glories, the more our future is being shaped by others, in Europe and globally

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Just like people, there are countries which act, and there are countries that are acted upon. The saddest thing about the past few years, for a true Briton, is the extent to which we have become an acted-upon nation. Foreign secretaries may speak of us punching above our weight. We may comfort ourselves with the creativity and glamour of British design, music and art.

But the big things in public life thump in from outside. The European Union is the biggest and most obvious example of how the world our children will inherit is designed and hatched far from London. Whether the single currency goes ahead or doesn't, the shape of the Union is not closely linked to how British prime ministers act; yet those questions are of great moment for British people.

That, though, is only the beginning. We argue about films, stories and cultural dilemmas that are all imported. The Scots used to complain about the way in which their country was re-imagined and exported back to Scotland from London and Hollywood, so that Scottish children grew up with an image of themselves and their culture which had been confected elsewhere. Now that is true of Britain generally, and the English in particular: the rise of the English villain and the fake England of Hollywood, discussed on these pages by Peter Popham last week, has provoked a rerun of the debate about cultural takeover that ignited in Scotland in the Sixties and Seventies.

If there is a debate about censorship and art, it turns on an imported US photographic exhibition. If there are arguments about violence in film, they comprise the locals' reaction to what Cronenberg or Tarantino got up to a year ago and a world away. If we are discussing digital broadcasting and regulation, we are mostly discussing players, such as Murdoch, for whom Britain is a despised offshore province.

This condition of "being happened to" (the Germans probably have a word for it) is noticed acutely among the political classes. Cabinet ministers may tell us that Britain is "punching above her weight" or is Washington's "oldest and most important ally", but they don't dominate the meetings that matter. They travel with the titles and trappings of world power, and that strange glossiness of the elected; but they are, nevertheless, titled, betrapped and glossy followers.

Granted, this is the condition of most politicians in a world whose movers are private corporate players and creatives: when Bill Gates drops in on Mr Major, there is no doubt as to who is the more important.

But it is also something that the rest of us feel. We feel it directly, as consumers and workers in a globalising economy: our use of American culture and Asian technology simply makes us less British than the British were a couple of generations ago. And we feel it indirectly: because we are vaguely used to seeing politicians as leaders, their relative ineffectiveness rebukes us too.

It may seem strange, but "being happened to" makes thinking about our national history not less important, but more important - and dangerous. In the Nineties, history, not trade unionism, is the British disease. We both need and suffer from it. We need it as raw material - it is part of what we bring to the global party, to be endlessly recycled for tourism and entertainment. And, of course, it is the decorative detritus of a global language.

But we suffer from the introversion and nostalgia it brings. In some ways, we know too much history. We are so overloaded with memories and precedents, that movement in any direction becomes harder and harder. The Conservative Party may be in decline, but the Conservation Party rules. It is led by Prince Charles, fascinated by re-creating old environments, determined to protect these scarred, crowded islands from further change, keen to reassert Holy Parliament. Subtly, insidiously, it saps our optimism about the future. It even has its own Whitehall department, Heritage.

Heritage Britain, ruled by the Conservation Party, can only be an acted- upon, happened-to nation. It is the sort of country where great new buildings cannot be erected because their shadows fall on lesser, older buildings. It is a country where the most modest, timorous reform of the House of Lords is regarded as reckless by - Heaven help us - the Spice Girls. It is a nation where wider political reforms, of a scale implemented decade after decade by the Victorians, are thought impossible to get through Westminster: today we list our political institutions with almost as much reverence as mid-century architecture.

It is not, in short, an assertive little country any more. But in looking for a way forward, it's worth noting that the outside pressures are of two kinds. There are the pressures from Continental politicians, which are so well known and so disruptive of Tory politics. And there are the pressures from global, mainly American, culture and business. These have a much greater impact on our lives; at a political level, they barely register.

Yet the EU is partly about mitigating and answering the global pressures; it is a defensive political structure. We may find it too defensive, and want to embrace globalism passionately. But we should recognise that it offers us at least a little choice: a shrewd, politically-awake Britain might well try to get the best of both - European when it suits us, such as in discussing media standards and regulation, but global-American, too. Until the anti-European revolt, this was more or less what we were trying to do.

Certainly, there is a gaping hole at the centre of right-wing Euro-sceptic thinking about this. On the one hand, they wish us to retire from federal Union in order to free Britain, to allow the rebirth of a vigorous ``young'' country: free-trading modern Drakes and Hawkinses; modern Stephensons and Brunels, all that.

On the other hand, almost all of them are among the anti-reform Ultras, hard-line defenders of the political and constitutional status quo ante; socially conservative; nostalgic - and highly suspicious of global-American popular culture. The dynamic Britain of earlier centuries was a place of fast and unstable internal change. You cannot be lively in the world but torpid inside your own coastline.

There is, in short, no escape - not from history, and certainly not back into history. The right's agenda is vivid and, under certain lights, attractive. But it is daft. Most of the country is already under the spell of global culture and uninterested in political nationalism.

The question facing voters will be whether new Labour, under Tony Blair, is really new. There is little point in having general elections if they do not, from time to time, shake the country up. Will Labour?

Its caution about political reform, its shift of emphasis on Europe, its excessive respect for The Institutions and its cultural conservatism are all reasons to be cautious. Labour doesn't look as if it will take on the Conservation Party head-on. At Shadow Cabinet some time ago, there was even a debate about Labour's "right to roam" hill-walking policy because it might offend big landowners.

Yet I remain at least half optimistic. It would be very odd if a leader who has cut his party off from much of its own cultural and political history, flinched from inflicting the same treatment on the country. That is what we desperately need. It's time for a government that shows our great national institutions and tradition a bit less respect.

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