This is a ghastly place: ask anyone: Our Maastricht fiasco is a fitting epitaph on a nation consumed by disgust at its own decline

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The Independent Online
LONG devoid of substantial content and now perceived as little more than a series of boring parliamentary and eccentric legal technicalities, the ill-made play of the Maastricht Bill drags itself desultorily into its final act. Once it was a great historic drama, a matter of national identity, of peace, war and prosperity; now it is little more than an overlong comedy, a goad, an irritant, a mosquito whine of futility, not quite so bad as the BT3 advertising campaign, but almost as incomprehensible. (Mel Smith, you see, is supposed to be Inspector Morse. Ah] Of course] And John Major, he's the Prime Minister. Pull the other one])

We are backing into Europe and the future, cursing ourselves for acquiescing and loathing ourselves for resisting. Sovereignty is dissolving in a pantomime of Lords and Whips, and the world looks on and wonders. But perhaps this is as it should be - an appropriately messy, fumbled moment to terminate the messy, fumbled trajectory of the post-war British soul.

Perhaps Maastricht is not the embarrassing nullity it appears to be. Perhaps it is a gesture of glorious nihilism, the one authentic act of self- immolation which the nation has been unconsciously seeking since the mid-Fifties when either, according to your perspective, we made an apocalyptic but resonant mess of Suez or the young men got angry and satirical and stopped being respectful to their elders. And beyond this immolation may conceivably lie, if not a new self- esteem, then at least peace. For maybe then we can stop hating ourselves for the not-very-good reason that we shall not be us any more.

British self-loathing has been so much a part of the past, say, 30 years that I, and probably you, have ceased to notice it. Since, I would guess, 1965, most intelligent, general conversations of any length have included a passage about how exceptionally awful, stupid, incompetent, depressing or ugly this nation is. I am not referring here to the routine, special-interest moaning of, for example, artists who find the British philistine, businessmen who find them lazy or of politicians who have discovered a 'poverty of aspiration'. What concerns me is the deep, disinterested misery of the post-patriotically depressed and the profound, international embarrassment of a people who had started to travel and discovered that, among other things, breakfasts did not have to be this bad.

Nothing, according to the wisdom of these endless conversations, seems to have happened recently that cannot be interpreted as a symptom of a wider ghastliness and no big disaster can escape the burden of a heavy, parenthetical freight of baleful meaning: Heysel Stadium (the national character has declined into a condition of murderous yobbery), Zeebrugge (we cannot even sail ships any more), the Grand National debacle (the country's festivals are wrecked by shabby, sclerotic inefficiency) and so on. In every case, it is not just that these things are done so badly that makes them so poignantly awful, it is that we once did them so well.

The semi-respectable basis for this self-loathing is that we are in long- term, irresistible decline. The belief that we are economically, culturally and politically on the post-imperial, post-industrial skids is beyond reasonable debate. History is a matter of ups and downs and this is what down feels like. In fact, debate often starts from the gloomily self-satisfied conviction that Britain is actually something of a ground-breaker in this area - everything here is just so bad that we have emerged on the far side of national collapse to become an interestingly wrecked - or, if you wish to sound more grand, fascinatingly post- industrial - landscape, worth being examined by the morbidly inclined if only as a dreadful portent. Our futuristic wasteland is like the spinning jenny, the hovercraft or the football hooligan: we got one first, but you are next.

This phenomenon cannot be neutralised by claiming that self-loathing is simply a perennial aspect of national character, for before the Sixties it was almost completely undetectable. Nor can it be dismissed as a specialised reflex of one political or social group. The left hates modern Britain for its class system, its establishment and its inequalities; the right hates it for its welfarism, its insolent destructiveness and its architecture. The poor hate the British rich, the rich hate the British poor. Everybody hates British food and shop assistants and everybody thinks either the Americans or the French do things so much better. The perspective or the cause is immaterial, what counts is the hatred.

It cannot be wished away as a general human characteristic - the Americans don't do it, neither do the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Italians or the Japanese. The Australians are a special case.

On the bright side, the very prevalence of this mood might be said to be a nationally unifying factor. From Land's End to John O'Groats you can while away the hours with a lively chat about how spectacularly godawful this place really is in almost every respect. Indeed, it is a mark of self- loathing's success as an idea that it is those who attempt to deny it who sound specialised and marginal. List the types who genuinely seem to think that British is a good thing to be: neo-fascist skinheads, Ian Paisley and John Major with his silly, suburban fantasies. The war has been forgotten, there are no more grateful, awestruck emigres like Nikolaus Pevsner to seek out and catalogue the nation's wonders. There are only military dreams, cantankerous sectarianism and sub-Betjeman elegies.

Yet there is a certain local interest, colour and variety to the architecture of this loathing. There is, for example, a Cyril Connolly-esque grand salon fatigue that seems to have surfaced, through some strange cultural alchemy, in the drawl of Jeremy Paxman. There is the arty, usually Francophile, usually leftish irritation with British littleness and provincialism to be heard at almost any gallery or publishing party. There is the radical right visionary style, possessed by awful visions of the feckless, stupid British 'hanging on the nipple of state maternalism'. There is the Sunday Times, every page screeching in exasperation like Spitting Image's Duke of Edinburgh puppet. And there is the left, driven to despair by public apathy and failure to engage with any form of social justice that extends beyond its front door.

For them all, being British seems to represent some cruel and unusual punishment, some uniquely intolerable burden of suffering and rage. And for them all, Britain seems to be embodied by some emblematic figure born of their frustration: an elderly judge, a skinhead or the petit bourgeois with a David Shepherd elephant print.

Of course, from time to time there are voices singing in counterpoint to this ragged chorus. Through the Eighties, a victory in war and an apparent reversal of economic decline convinced many that we could be great again, though that short fantasy only succeeded in exaggerating the despair when it returned in the Nineties. Furthermore, the truth and maybe the greatness of Margaret Thatcher was that she hated us, if anything, rather more than we did ourselves.

In the Sixties there was a brief feeling that we really could be a kind of pop Athens to Washington's Rome and that a vapid economic patriotism - Be British, Buy British, remember? - could generate our export-led salvation. And still today the Sun struggles to cheer its readers with evidence that we are a nation of fun-loving, big-hearted cheeky chappies.

But how feeble they all sound against the wailing and the loathing] For the reality is that for 30 years, feeling good about Britain has not been a coherent option, and these odd, brave attempts to raise our spirits merely draw attention to the problem. But why have we acquired this reflex of self-disgust? There are many attempts at explanations: our bovine inertia, our passive absorbence of the worst of American culture, a chronic belief in rights rather than obligations, a sentimental Micawberish refusal to do anything but talk about putting things right, all of which have conspired to ensure that we shall under-perform and hate ourselves for it.

But really it is a question of expectations. Our economic performance has not been that bad, it has simply been noticeably worse than that of a few other nations. But we expected it to be automatically better simply because we were British and we had a track record, a glorious past. The same applies in every other realm - sport, art, fashion, whatever. Consequently when we failed, it was not just a local failure, it was a total systems collapse. After Heysel, Zeebrugge or the Grand National, it was not just a few villains, a door or a starting tape that were wrong, it was Britain.

This generalisation of catastrophe and failure may, of course, be seen as a peculiar kind of nationalism. It shows that we are still enough of a nation to hold experiences in common. 'Nations have a full spiritual life,' wrote Solzhenitsyn, ' . . . they can soar to the heights and plunge to the depths, run the whole gamut from saintliness to utter wickedness . . . ' And, he might have added, they can sink united into self-loathing and despair. But it is scarcely sustainable as the unifying principle of a modern state.

So Maastricht - a pointless treaty botched up and signed in deference to the demands of an overweening Franco-German axis and now floundering in daft litigation and even dafter procedure - is a good way to go, the perfect legislative correlative to the national self-image and an excellent joke to round off a 30-year whinge.