The waning of Middle England

The loss of quaint rituals and cultural traditions threatens our national identity, argues Clive Aslet
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Military ceremonial, feathered hats, a tearful governor, the Royal Yacht, torrential rain - the handover of Hong Kong was the sort of show that could only have been put on by the British. "They seem to have been impressed by the precision," said my deputy, speaking of the 8,000 other journalists who were with him to witness it all. But what did Tony Blair make of it, I wondered, when I saw him, bright-eyed and schoolboyishly wind-blown, on television. A chap whose gorge rises at judges' wigs and the sillier aspects of parliamentary tradition may well have felt there were too many eggs in the pudding.

Now that the Prime Minister is home, he will no doubt continue with his mission to modernise what he clearly regards as a stuffy old country, whose quaint rituals and traditions offend against the managerial style of New Labour (New Model Labour, as it is coming to be called, from the Cromwellian tendency of its leader). No government minister has been allowed to attend the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot or any of the other big events of this damp summer, at which tradition is celebrated with gaiety. We do not yet know what sort of nation Mr Blair wants us to become - though I fear that the ghost of Praise-God Barebones will hover over it. My worry is that the process of change will cause us to feel even more uncertain about who we are now.

In the last few days I have been plumbing the soul of Middle England, through the medium of local radio. Confined within a cubicle at Broadcasting House, a charmingly dysfunctional set of headphones clamped to my ears, I have sought to excite the listeners of Radios Cornwall, Essex, Nottingham, Derby and others about my book Anyone for England?

The premise of it is that the commonly-held assumptions about being British with which I grew up will not be inherited by my two-year-old son. It is not just that the old shared values have been replaced by others, but that there are fewer shared values at all. My observations can only be personal; I imagined a lot of people would hate them. In the event, I found a gratifying but entirely unexpected number of listeners agreeing with me. People do seem to feel that their national identity is waning. Middle England believes it has become the hole in the Polo mint.

A desire for belonging is a fundamental human need. It is a need, however, that has been denied by the fragmentation that characterises modern life. Families do not cohere; people move home frequently; they are just as reluctant to join political parties as they are to attend church; once- monolithic corporations have downsized. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for all of Britain to be doing the same thing at the same time. Take the ritual known as watching the Nine O'Clock News. Once, the whole nation gathered around the domestic idol of the television set, to receive knowledge of the days' events from the BBC. Now the multiplicity of choice in TV channels reflects the car windscreen tendency of everything that once looked immemorial to shatter.

And yet the urge to belong is as deeply felt as ever. At the personal level, it can be seen in the new fashion for family history. Up and down the country, local history libraries are thronged with amateur genealogists, tracing their roots. This passion used to be associated with recently formed nations such as the United States. The British did not bother with it much, because, as the American conservationist David Lowethal remembers having been told by British colleagues in the Sixties: "We don't need those family details; we have a secure national identity." The frantic desire to recapture that old security explains the colourful outburst of Henmania at Wimbledon, when fans were as desperate to demonstrate their togetherness in adulation of their hero. The nation found a similar outlet through the VE and VJ Day commemorations. I would have high hopes of the Millennium Experience at Greenwich, were it not that the appointment of Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Grade seems guaranteed to create a spectacular for American tourists, rather than a celebration of our common past which could go some way to correcting the woefully inadequate teaching of history in English schools.

By coming together at events such as Greenwich the nation cements its culture. Do not reach for your revolver; I am not referring to artistic culture, but the general context in which we live. Once, this provided guidelines for the kind of behaviour with which the British were comfortable. They behaved politely towards one another. They did not urinate, spit or belch in public. They did not beg. They were tolerant of one another's peculiarities, because they were confident in the ancient democratic processes by which a benign providence had caused their existence to be ordered. The loss of respect suffered by democratic institutions is probably the greatest change to have overcome Britain in my lifetime. Sleaze at Westminster - a card rather overplayed - is only part of it. Our public inquiries are the most laboriously democratic of any in the world, and yet Swampy and his cohorts set their outcome at nought. Not that it is just the Swampys. Out with their opera-disrupting Strimmers, the prosperous neighbours of Garsington Manor are much the same.

We were, of course, terribly up-tight. The title of the farce No Sex Please, We're British expressed an immediately recognisable attitude. Divest someone like me of his inhibitions, and there wouldn't be much left. It is possible for repression to go too far. It causes people to dash across cricket pitches and tennis courts without clothes, thinking they will shock spectators. On the other hand, there was an acceptance of a manner of behaviour that made people feel easy. "The Englishman hates to reveal himself; in fact it is considered bad manners to talk about oneself," remarked the German Kurt von Stutterheim in a book about the English in 1937. It was an assumption with which I grew up. The secrets of a marriage, for example, were things that the rest of the world should never know. The Princess of Wales danced on that, and her behaviour will set a norm.

This culture - the culture of tradition - was expressed in emblems such as the telephone box, tall policeman's helmet and red London bus. These symbols were unique; yet any expression of regret at their passing is regarded as laughable. Foreign visitors must think we are mad. The latest depredation upon a familiar icon has been to turn the backs of London buses into enormous moving billboards, advertising jeans and cosmetics. The back of a bus has never been a synonym for beauty, but this contribution to the street-scape is - yes, I shall say it - vulgar. By using the word I risk condemning myself as elitist. Yet there was a time when it was accepted that the streets of the capital should be regulated to the highest standards.

We should hesitate before casting these national symbols overboard. They mean something. They take a long time to establish. Oddly, it is always the English dimension in the Union which gets jettisoned. I do not hear Mr Blair saying: we must modernise Britain, so let's end the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools, we'll have no more dual-language road signs in Wales, Parliament will have a free vote on banning archaic practices involving the death of animals, such as the slaughter for halal and kosher meat. However, if young English people grow up to believe that they do not have a culture in which they can legitimately take pride, their natural group instinct may find an outlet in jingoism, racism and violence.

The writer is editor of `Country Life'.