Now we wonder if we need the Queen: Much that defined Britain in 1953 has disappeared, so just what makes England Our England now?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'THE GENTLENESS, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies . . . England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.'

That was the conclusion of George Orwell's anxious, brilliant essay England Your England, written in 1941. Orwell the socialist wanted some things to change; Orwell the patriot wanted other things to endure. His solution is an affirmation of the essence of England, unchangeable beneath the contingencies of history. To this the patriot could offer his loyalty, upon this the socialist could build his Utopia.

Twelve years later the war was won and Elizabeth II was crowned. Much of the idealism of the immediate post-war years had faded. Austerity had clung too long and far from being conclusive, the war looked like a prelude to the nuclear

apocalypse.

Nevertheless, England Our England had survived. In 1953 it still felt like Orwell's nation - gentle, insular, eccentrically hierarchical and, above all, different. In spite of Empire and two global wars, the country had retained an extraordinary national distinctiveness. Coming home from abroad, Orwell wrote, 'you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air'.

This sense of difference underpinned the Coronation celebrations. Because we were different we understood and deserved this pompous, largely faked medieval pageantry. Because we were different we could indulge in a sentimental, nominalistic mysticism - the new Queen was called Elizabeth, therefore we were embarking on a New Elizabethan Age. And, of course, because we were different, we and we alone had held out against the evil at the heart of Europe; after all, the gesticulating foreigners had crumbled. We were different for all eternity. Vivat Regina]

During the next 40 years that idea of an unchanging essence of England was to be subjected to a multiple assault. It was to be Elizabeth II's destiny not to be confronted, like her predecessor, with an Armada that could be sunk, burnt and humiliated, but with a more effective, elusive invasion that is now reaching a symbolic climax with the threat to the continuity of the monarchy itself. It was an invasion by the entire world or perhaps, more precisely, by the entire modern world.

At first it was an invasion from within. In the Fifties our pride in our difference began to be counterbalanced by embarrassment. Anti-patriotic loathing of Little England had been a part of artistic and intellectual life since the 1890s. But now anti-Establishment scepticism was being disseminated through television and fictions popular beyond the dreams of dissentient Bloomsbury.

The distinctively English figure became an upper-class moron, barely able, in his Monty Python incarnation, to get the bra off a deb. And the old idea, enduring in the popular mind until well after the war, that the ruling classes were, in spite of their admitted incompetence, essentially benign became a badge of navety. The tradition - running from Peter Cook to Andrew Neil that the British were the victims of a peculiarly malign and incompetent establishment had been formed. It is no more true here than elsewhere, but here it is a myth that fits.

The belief that the national character was not admirable but ridiculous filtered through the culture, encouraged by international travel and international television. Most of the post-war young would grow up to find Orwell's suet puddings or his 'old maids biking to Holy Communion' embarrassing rather than consoling, and almost all of them would find elderly judges or grousemoor politicians laughable. The problem was that there was now so much with which they could be compared. And the biggest and least flattering comparison of all was with the United States.

American culture had begun its global colonisation through cinema in the pre-war years. But we shared the language, so we were the softest of all targets. This accelerated after the war, to be reinforced by television and the accompanying sense that America was a looser, freer, richer, funnier place. Again, this began as a high, arty awareness. Pop art was born in the studios of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi in Fifties London as a way, among other things, of embracing American consumer culture. But soon the big cars, the fridges and the washing machines were noticed as the decor of American sitcoms and they became popular emblems of a distinctively modern, specifically un-British good life.

Embracing Americana was, and remains, the great popular response to the post-war British sense of littleness and restriction. The desire to wear American clothes is now less a fashion impulse than a function of adolescent destiny, like spots. And even pop music, which we consistently do better than anybody else, remains a system of life, gesture and style evolved in New York, Nashville and San Francisco.

America with its expansive excitement makes you laugh at little Yookay with its pettiness and restrictions. Europe, in contrast, speaks different languages and its invasion has been quieter and subtler. 'The Continent' was, of course, the first destination of the new travelling masses, though, initially, they quarantined themselves along the culturally neutral beaches. There they created one of the most embarrassing of all post-war British stereotypes: the purple and peeling lager lout eating chips and abusing Spanish waiters.

The lager lout came to represent another national difference we could do without. He was an affront to the new, sophisticated, young European bourgeoisie. Perhaps because of the fact that almost all of continental Europe was defeated or invaded, the cultural hiatus of the war was more complete. We had remained physically intact so continuity was more of an issue, whether as dream or embarrassment. In Europe, there was a clearer sense of a new beginning. The post-war young embraced a transnational vision. This had less flavour than the US version and the New Europeans were stigmatised by the Americans as 'Eurotrash'. But, with the collapse of the iron curtain, Europe has acquired a certain meaning, a certain weight among the young. It offers them another wider, more appealing identity than mere Britain.

The idea of America and the idea of Europe, combined with more specific invasions such as Japanese technology, Italian clothes, French food and German cars, conspired to convince the British that being different was a mug's game. What could it mean? What was it for? And was it desirable once immigration had produced a multicultural society in which majority difference could produce minority offence?

So, perhaps at first unconsciously, post-war Britain abandoned its Britishness. The look of the place took on a bland internationalism, and when that became boring, we acquired a pastiche retro air. Even as early as the Sixties, when we had been 'swinging', the Union Jack was employed as a pop image rather than a national flag. Yes, said the imagery, the British were doing the pop-culture thing distinctively well, but this was not a patriotic assertion, it was a tourist tip. The flag had become an airport sign saying Welcome to Britain.

Superficial differences - Orwell listed things such as bitter beer, heavier coins, green grass - remain. There is still something distinctive about the texture of Britain, even in the way we have changed - nothing clearly characterises our cities as grand Victorian and pompous Edwardian buildings clumsily embrace cold modernist shop fronts and garish Americana. But, beneath this, what really endures? Is there, as Orwell thought, an eternal national essence?

The evidence is against him. Orwell tried to define the essence with lists, but now you can cross off what has been lost: the gentleness, the reverence for law, the suet puddings, even the mild, knobbly faces. The more you cross off, the more fugitive and improbable becomes the essence that he sought. A modern Orwell might list other things - a fecund pop-culture comedy, ugly houses with phony olde worlde details, and so on. But the lists would be incommensurable.

The truth is that Orwell was asking too much of this national essence, he was trying too hard. It was understandable in the dark days of 1941, and in the light of his fear that international totalitarianism was the greatest threat facing the world. He did not realise that, in fact, the real threat to the suet puddings and the bitter beer was international democracy and, if he had, perhaps he would have gladly ditched the puddings and the beer.

But I do not think he would. Orwell was an artist before he was a political essayist and his poetic feeling for the country was more than the sum of his lists. There was something there that evaded all his objective correlatives. And it persists. Perhaps it is only a fleeting whisper, an effect of language. From here, from now, this still feels like a nation. So, 40 years down the line and on that admittedly shaky foundation, Vivat, as it were, Regina]

(Photograph omitted)

Comments