John Harris: Robbie's take on the British dream: a cross between 'Angels' and 'Jerusalem'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone who thought the chief function of politicians was to deal with such mundane tasks as fiscal planning, the running of the welfare state and the defence of the realm must have had

pause for thought recently. From the outside, a rum cross-section of the Westminster elite - Gordon Brown, Norman Tebbit, David Blunkett, Michael Howard and the unavoidable Hazel "English-British" Blears - have lately seemed far more concerned with the pressing question of what it means to be British. Once the solution has arrived, it seems, all will once again be well: inner-city jihadists will tear up their seditious leaflets, George Galloway and his ilk will stand revealed as treacherous fellow travellers, and we will all crowd on to public transport feeling newly relaxed.

Contributions to the debate have recently settled - as these things usually do - into a yawn-inducing array of clichés, all of which must necessarily end with a tribute to "decency, tolerance and a sense of fair play". So hats off to the leader of the Conservative Party, while he's still around, for taking things into the realm of blazing ludicrousness with his recent return to proposals for a "British dream".

Mr Howard's authorship of the concept doesn't exactly give it the best chance of catching on, but that has hardly dampened his enthusiasm. "No one here talks about the British dream," he moaned last week. "We should. We need to break down the barriers that exist in too many people's lives ... that prevent or deter them from making a success of life." He went on: "We need to inculcate a sense of allegiance to the values that are the hallmark of Britain." The latter, of course, are nothing less than - oh yes! - "decency, tolerance and a sense of fair play".

But let us take him at his word and think of some scenarios. A disruptive pupil is busy spoiling his classmates' chances of academic achievement, so the teacher pulls him back into line with a curt reminder: "Have you forgotten about the British dream?" En route in his Rover saloon to a two-week holiday in Aviemore, a freshly promoted middle manager turns to his wife and whispers, "Isn't it wonderful, darling? We're living the British dream." One might imagine a suitably anthemic theme song, maybe delivered by Robbie Williams, some-where beteen "Angels" and "Jerusalem".

If this seems unlikely, that's probably thanks to a set of national virtues that most of our politicians have all but forgotten. If there are such things as British values, they are surely tied up with an empirical, sceptical mindset that has no need for any kind of national myth at all.

As George Orwell pointed out in "The Lion and the Unicorn" - quoted occasionally by those currently tying themselves in patriotic knots, though none of them seem to have understood it - we have "a horror of abstract thought ... [and] no need for any philosophy or systematic world-view". Moreover, "all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff is done by small minorities". We are not, in short, a nation given to dreams, least of all self-consciously British ones.

Instead, this country's philosophical gift to the world has been a kind of enlightened slovenliness, which most of our politicians used to ooze, until Margaret Thatcher decided the Tory Party needed its own Weltanschauung, and Tony Blair went one better by heralding the age of the party-leader-as-wide-eyed-messiah. Indeed, as far as the current hoo-ha about national identity is concerned, the Prime Minister has a great deal to answer for.

If the current "debate" started anywhere, it was in the period of political innocence during which Mr Blair talked about reinventing the UK as a "young country" and New Labour trumpeted "the rebranding of Britain". That such schemes were doomed to failure was amply demonstrated by their grand summation: the Millennium Dome, that lasting monument to our uselessness with big ideas.

Five years on, if we really do need a credo that might somehow dampen the spirits of would-be terrorists, reunite our towns and cities and steady our nerves, I'd pick the words of a Conservative leader whose only dreams came in his sleep, and who, unlike Mr Howard, actually made it to Downing Street. "Nothing matters very much, and most things don't matter at all," reckoned Arthur Balfour. Isn't that about as British as it gets?