British Grand Narratives (and not such grand ones too)


What’s our story? Do we even have one as a country, and anyway, does it matter? As one attempt at an answer to these questions, I had the interesting experience recently of visiting the imperial splendour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall (the FCO is tactfully able to retain its abbreviation with the ‘C’ now standing for Commonwealth rather than Colonial). The occasion was a conference on the notion of British ‘decline’ and questioning this as a national historical narrative. Jointly organised by Queen Mary University, the Mile End Institute and the FCO, the conference examined the notion of ‘decline’ which is so commonplace in British historiography since 1945 that it seems questionable whether historians can even talk about Britain in this period without producing a narrative of ‘decline’.

Decline is a concept that has been the post-war lens for examining a variety of aspects of British life, including decolonisation, diminishing world influence, gradual erosion of manufacturing and exports, and a stagnating domestic economy plagued by industrial dispute and heavy debt. Sounds sort of familiar to many of us Britons growing up in the second half of the 20th C, doesn’t it?

Key speaker at the conference, Prof David Reynolds, examined several British grand narratives – and as he put it, some not so grand ones. Of course, number one was ‘decline’, followed by Europeanisation, and then multiculturalism. They all have their problems for becoming an attractive narrative. Britain is always the ‘awkward’ European and ambivalent about our relationship to the main continent, so it’s hard for Europeanisation to become our grand narrative in the way it has for France and Germany. And ‘multiculturalism’ can seem an attractive new narrative for Britain, but in order for this to work, we would first need to come to terms with with our Empire history; and we’ve hardly begun to do that.

Decline is still the way the British story is usually written and thought about. Yet it is not just a simple story of the rise and then subsequent decline of The Empire and of Britain. Yes, the vast Empire is gone (thankfully), but what is less well known is that from about the second half of the 19th C onwards, The Empire was more of a financial burden to Britain than an asset. Policing the seven seas to protect The Empire cost more than it gave back in return.

Now, far from having sunk into oblivion, Britain is actually the 5th largest economy in the world. London is one of the top financial cities in the world with huge reach. Britain also has great global influence in the creative industries these days, rather than in the old manufacturing sector. And despite our continuing inequality, Britain has really rebounded pretty well since the devastation and bankruptcy of the country following WWII.

What seemed to really cement the post WWII and post Empire notions of decline as our narrative, was the decade of the 1970s. Stories from the 70s of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, our being ‘the sick man of Europe’, the 3 day week, rubbish rotting on the streets, bodies lying unburied during a gravediggers’ strike, all somehow crystallised a British myth of decline that has never left us. A poignant quote from historian Dominic Sandbrook writing about the 70s, and the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan is worth pondering for a moment to let it sink in,

‘Even Callaghan himself seemed to have little faith in his native land. In November 1974 he told his colleagues, “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength – and that is running out. And,” he went on, “If I were a young man, I should emigrate.”

Hmm… and from no less than the PM of the time himself. Grand narratives are powerful myths and have a strong influence on all of us. A grand or metanarrative is a story about a story, which aims to encompass and explain other ‘small stories’ within totalizing schemes. How true they are, is of course, another matter.

For example, American historian George Bernstein, in his book about Britain since WWII, The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain Since 1945, comes to a very different and counterbalancing analysis:

‘Apart from the catastrophic decades of the 1920s and the 1970s, both linked to larger worldwide economic phenomena, the peacetime story (in Britain) has been one of growth and prosperity.’

Bernstein asserts from studying the economic figures, that Britain has done a remarkable job of transformation, and that the country since WWII was actually not fundamentally in decline, when for everyone here, that is an unquestioned and often unconscious given. Of course, he’s not British, which helps on a subject so close to us natives. For example, he points out that Britain’s annual growth rate from 1951-73 was higher than in all previous time periods including the most powerful periods of empire, and this growth was really impressive, given the devastation of WWII.

Of course, I haven’t given any answer to what could or should be our current narrative, if we are to have one at all. But I think it’s better to have a more conscious story than merely one such as ‘decline’ which is absorbed largely semi consciously from our culture. And I don’t think it is fit for purpose any more. Do we need a story, anyway? I think so, since we live by stories and myths far more than we imagine, and that is not a bad thing. Life is a story, after all.

Fair Play

I still remember as a child, the shock when my ordered view of the world collapsed. Strangely, while I can’t recall what was the trigger, it’s etched into my psyche how my sense of certainty and goodness was shaken that fateful day. Like realising Father Christmas wasn’t for real. It was when I woke up to the sickening realisation that Life wasn’t fair. Up until then, it had never occurred to me to question the cast iron ‘fact’ that Britain was fair, the world was fair, Life was fair. And then my awful epiphany that ‘fairness’ was not a universal quality. While similar rude awakenings no doubt happen to children all over the world, this one about fairness has a particularly British flavour. Fairness is a value we British hold most dearly. I was absolutely convinced that Life was fair – I mean, wouldn’t there be a law against unfairness?

Trevor Phillips relates how when the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which he was head of, opened in 2007, they undertook a public attitude survey to find out what the public most wanted the Commission to promote and protect.10978523354_f4823e2863_c

‘Fractionally behind a concern with being safe, the most important thing for people was fairness. Overwhelmingly respondents were more receptive to the idea of fair play than they were to the language of ‘rights’. If you think that’s uncontroversial, think for a minute how a French or American group might answer. Rights would be right up there, the rights secured by their revolutions and laid down in their constitutions. But we do things differently here. Fairness sums up our belief in cooperation for the common good. It is made possible by a robust rule of law and stable institutions.’

Foreigners make fun of our almost religious ritual of queuing and we can be duped into feeling that we are being uptight, if not severely anal about this obsessive habit. Americans don’t even have a proper word for the phenomenon apart from the rather inadequate ‘stand in line.’

I can’t bear it if someone jumps the queue and doesn’t wait their turn, and we seethe with anger at anyone who transgresses this unwritten law of Britishness. But it’s not such a weird reaction of ours. It’s because pushing ahead of others who have been waiting is NOT FAIR! And we think our society should be fair, or at least striving to be so. In a time when it often seems that we are devoid of any sense of what being British means or if we even think there is anything to feel British about, a value like fairness still resonates down the mists of time. Fair play is an article of faith across the political spectrum in Britain and we are outraged by injustice; Churchill and Orwell, opposites in many ways, both held it dearly. Fair play as a British value runs deep and has roots stretching way back into our historical development as a nation. It is part of who we are, and one facet of the elusive heart of Britishness.

From: Beng British: Our Once & Future Selves