The search for British self-knowledge could end in the usual muddle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"YOU can't lose them all!," said the German journalist encouragingly to the British. Josef Joffe, from Munich, was addressing the strange Britain in the World conference called by our foreign-policy Establishment in London last week.

Several foreigners were asked, including Joffe and Dr Henry Kissinger, and watched a series of British speakers depressing themselves as they denounced all the fashionable pessimism about their country. Joffe thought he would cheer them up.

But of course you can lose them all. The Giants - not the baseball team, but the ones in the Greek myth who declared war on the Gods - lost not just every battle but every single combat. I was reminded about this by the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where, in a hall the size of a Boeing hangar, the remains of a gigantic Second-century Greek altar from Asia Minor have been re-erected. Here, in double-lifesize marble, the Giants are something like 80-0 down to the Gods and Goddesses. The local tyrant Eumenes II, who paid for this monument, wanted no exceptions. The altar, far bigger than many temples, was to celebrate his victory over the neighbouring Galatians, and why should any of them win?

The Pergamon Altar used to strike me as "Germanic" - oversized and dedicated to senseless violence. Now this seems wrong. In the first place, it has, even as incomplete fragments, a superhuman beauty. To see it new, in a Mediterranean summer dawn with nobody about except for the odd ox-cart or water-carrier, must have been overwhelming. But, secondly, there are some ideas hidden in all this broken marble. Victory, say the sculptures, is about staying human.

The Giants of Pergamon forgot this. Some have wings. Some have legs which turn into serpents at the thigh, rearing up into hissing, snapping cobra heads. The Gods, on the other hand, have perfect human bodies. They have bestial allies: lions and horses which bite off snake legs and carry Goddesses side-saddle into battle. But they do not become beasts themselves. This is why they win, thrusting their swords, spears and torches into the hybrid monsters rolling in agony under their feet.

The Britain in the World show last week reminded me of the Pergamon frieze. It set out with a dim, troubled intention to celebrate the British state and its standing in the world - rather like the remit of the Millennium Commission. In the end, however, the London conference could not decide which world it was talking about, or what sort of Britain it meant. Prince Charles, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary - all seemed to grow fabulous wings and serpent limbs as they begged this inexpressible Britain to express itself again. The Prince said that to exert influence, "we have first to believe in ourselves". Mr Hurd said: "We need to rediscover our self-knowledge."

This is fascinating talk. If they do not know what they mean by Britain, who does? And their anxiety about identity raises a second question. Are giants confused about their own nature always doomed to be beaten by gods and goddesses who know who they are?

What foreigners and even some natives mean by Britain is a state containing several nations, one 10 times bigger than the others. The reason that the Prince, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary think that there is a self-knowledge problem is that they are English, and therefore get England and Britain and nation and state all muddled up. The Scots and the Welsh, by and large, do not find Britain puzzling. Some of them do not want to stay with it, but at least they know what it is. They are Scottish or Welsh in national identity, British in citizenship: no mystery there either. They are small gods, living next to a very large giant which keeps treading on its wings and tripping over its snake-feet.

"The Battle over Britain" is a Demos pamphlet recently written by Philip Dodd. He asks most of the right questions, and answers some of them. His best point is his analysis of what Mrs Thatcher did to "Britishness" as an idea. She disabled those gentlemanly lites - political, educational, cultural - who had for ages laid down what was British and what was not, and then, backed by Rupert Murdoch, she tried to substitute a vigorous, popular notion of Britishness. She (or her ghost-writers) launched into pastiche Cromwell language: "There is no week, nor day, nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their supreme confidence in themselves, and lose their roughness and spirit of defiance."

Never mind the brass nerve of this, from the woman who at that very moment was using riot police to break the "spirit of defiance" in the National Union of Mineworkers. The point here is whether there can be such a thing as popular Britishness, or whether what Mrs T really meant was "Englishness". Could it be that Britishness only belonged to gentlemen who knew how to mediate it to other classes and breeds within the Kingdom, and that when the gentlemen were expropriated, British patriotism crumbled into the roughness known as English nationalism?

If that is so, it is time to know more about what this English nationalism is going to be like. Patrick Wright's masterly new book, The Village That Died for England, is helpful here. He reviews the arguments which have raged for some 80 years around the Army ranges at Lulworth and Tyneham in Dorset, and assembles them into a picture of English reactions when faced with a challenge to "our land".

Here English feelings were out on their own, without any "British" restraints, and they were disconcerting. The squirearchy campaigners fought the state for their own untrammelled property rights, which seemed to them the ark of the English covenant. Other protesters, many of them intellectual incomers with wider horizons, expressed their own love of country in crude blood- and-soil terms in which the realities of an industrialised, urban society scarcely figured at all. This evidence has upset some of Wright's reviewers, one of whom accuses him of insinuating "that if you are saddened by seeing green fields built over ... then you are probably a racist and a fascist".

Welsh and Scottish nationalisms have been moderate, modernising creeds - what Michael Ignatieff calls "civic" rather than "ethnic" nationalism. But English nationalism, as it emerges, may turn out more atavistic. This raises a curious possibility. Britishness has often been seen as a devious English way of keeping the Celtic periphery in line. But suppose exactly the opposite is true - that Great Britain has been a straitjacket which has kept wild England under control and strapped down its brawling fists?

There might just be something in that. It is a thought as unwelcome in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast as it is in London, which means that it is worth taking seriously. It would imply that the main value of the union with Scotland or with Northern Ireland is not to enrich those two territories, but to protect the English against themselves. John Major has been trying to rally middle England to the defence of the union. He should try that line in his next sermon.

All this puts last week's Britain in the World occasion in a different light. The search for British self-knowledge could end in the usual muddle. On the other hand, it could lead to the discovery that, while Britain is a clumsy mythical giant, England is an agile god who can slash down aliens and challengers. But is that something we really want to find out?