Michael Bywater: A national brand stuck in the 1920s

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The Independent Online

Bad times? Nonsense. Buck up. All coming along nicely, what? Football chap shoots another chap in the side, larking about. Daring SAS raid (is there another sort? Is there another thing they do, other than raids?) gets our chaps out of the desert. The King's Speech at the Oscars. Rolls-Royce more respected than Google, Microsoft or Apple, whose chief designer Jony "iPad" Ive is an Englishman who drives around Los Angeles in a Bentley some days, an Aston Martin on others.

The underpinnings are in place. Johnny Arab going crackers toppling dictators right and left, while back in Blighty the flannelled fools are at the wicket, the muddied oafs in the goal. The palpably barking Gordon turns out to have been hand in hand with the even more barking Colonel Gaddafi in a dodgy deal to sell wirelesses to Libyan secret policeman. Plus ça change as Chief Flannelled Fool Cameron plods around the desert flogging bombs and handcuffs to anyone with the Riyals to pay.

Tighten belts. Button your jacket, that man. No more university for the proles, no more funding for the humanities. Kick the poor out of town, the sick out of hospital and the old out of bed. That's the way. Cue Pomp and Circumstance and, remembering what CFF Cameron said about "state multiculturalism", for God's sake try to play the White Man. Got it? Good. Sarn't Major: dismiss.

Really, Brand Britain couldn't be doing better if we'd got in one of those frightful sorts from Clerkenwell (fixie bike and Beyerdynamic T1 headphones welded to the skull) to run a full-scale branding operation. Magically, here we are, back in a sort of terribly English time-slice, running roughly from 1911 to 1924. David Hempleman-Adams about to lead an expedition up Everest to eat Herdwick Lamb at 27,390 feet and the Metropolitan Police promise to be more polite. Soon it'll be old-fashioned bobbies, clips round the ear, and when baffled, call in The Toff, The Saint, Albert Campion or Lord Peter Wimsey (together with faithful manservants Jolly, Magersfontein Lugg, Oracle or Bunter, salts-of-the-earth who knew their place, which was to keep their master from killing 'iself).

What is it about early 20th-century England that appeals to some odd national personality-quirk a century later? Have we just been driven mad by the prospect of a Royal marriage? Is it our love of austerity and disaster? Why has Journey's End been such a hit, why is Michael Morpurgo's War Horse opening, as a sort of English Ambassador, on Broadway in a couple of weeks, why have novelists from Deborah Moggach (In the Dark) to William Brodrick (A Whispered Name) been drawn to that period? Novelist Elizabeth Speller, whose The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, set in 1924, King's Speech year, will be published this spring, says: "I think people want to belong to little things, little worlds, they can control and be part of; and they want to be brave." "The Great War was fought by battalions like Sandringham and Sledmere, and local 'Pals Battalions' or 'Public Schools Battalions' . These small, tight loyalties went with them to the trenches; that's what they really fought for." But there's another angle. "When Downton Abbey came out," she says, "I went on Twitter as Lady Mary Crawley, just for fun. I was astonished how popular she became. But what was really interesting was how many of Lady Mary's followers wanted to be the servants."

Below-stairs, knowing our place. Fooling around with guns. Daring raids. The Rolls-Royce purring smoothly. The Maghreb in flames and, back home, that RBS smoothie with the vast load-bearing foie gras chin, and the toffs back in charge. Is that what we want? Is that how we want the world to see us? So it would seem. Fair enough. Good show. Bags I be Lugg.