Britain's pride in its past is not matched by any vision for its future | Timothy Garton Ash
There have been times over the last few weeks when it has felt as if we were living through a looped replay of Dad’s Army, says Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash
How does Britain look in the Covid-19 mirror? Let’s start with the good news. At the end of last year, the divide between Brexiters and remainers seemed miles deep. These were the new tribes replacing political parties, it was suggested, and the civil war between them might last for decades. Yet there was neither Brexiter nor remainer when Covid-19 came to call. We pulled together. Unlike Donald Trump, Boris Johnson has shown due respect for the science around this pandemic. As in many other European countries, Britain’s weekly evening applause and widespread volunteering in support of health and care workers has been genuinely moving. The “whatever it takes” economic response of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Bank of England has been swift, bold and fundamentally correct.
Now for the bad news. Britain’s muddled handling of the Covid-19 crisis has put another big dent into what used to be its reputation for good government. Although Brits have come together across the Brexit divide, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have each had different public health responses, highlighted particularly by Scottish nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon. The most striking thing, however, has been the way that Britain in general, and England in particular, has reverted to a nostalgic celebration of our shared past in the second world war, with no corresponding sense of a shared future.
There have been times over the last few weeks when it has felt as if we were living through a permanent, looped replay of Dad’s Army, the TV comedy series about Britain’s Home Guard in the second world war. The unchallenged media hero of this crisis is Captain Tom, the 100-year-old war veteran celebrated for raising millions of pounds for the NHS by doing a sponsored walk around his garden. Not a day goes by without more photographs of him in his blue blazer and campaign medals, and he has just been given a knighthood. Spitfires flew overhead to mark his 100th birthday. Mentions of Winston Churchill and the blitz are two a penny. The forces’ sweetheart, Vera Lynn, now 103, has been back in the charts with her wartime hit We’ll Meet Again – quoted by the Queen in a televised broadcast to the nation in the slightly more Queen’s English version, “we will meet again”. This wartime nostalgia reached a peak around VE Day, helpfully explained by one Daily Mail souvenir blurb as the day Britain celebrates its “victory over Europe”.
I am irresistibly reminded of the comment made by a former US ambassador that the British “seem to know mainly what they used to be”. Now, before some dyspeptic columnist hands me the journalistic equivalent of the white feather, let me affirm that the British are absolutely right to be proud of their wartime record. What our parents and grandparents did under Churchill’s leadership in 1940 really was in many ways our “finest hour”, and if we Brits can still draw strength and inspiration from it, good.
The trouble is that this justified pride in that past is not matched by any corresponding vision for the future. Yet to be a nation in good mental health requires a sense both of where you are coming from and where you want to go. Ideally, you want a narrative connecting the two. It is a somewhat painful irony that Germany has managed to turn its own horrendous second world war record into the starting point of such a positive narrative, as president Frank-Walter Steinmeier demonstrated in a magnificent speech on VE Day, while Britain seems only to have the retrospective half.
Partly, this is because the British are so proud of their own wartime role that they misunderstand it. A Times-YouGov poll recently asked people in Britain, France, the US and Germany which of the wartime allies contributed most to defeating Nazi Germany. The clear winner in the other three countries was the US, with less than 10% of respondents saying Britain. But in Britain itself, a staggering 47% said Britain played the most significant part, with less than a quarter of British respondents identifying either the US or the Soviet Union. The historian Michael Howard once rebuked some gratuitous flourish of this “we did it alone” hubris in the pages of the Daily Telegraph with perhaps the pithiest letter ever sent to any newspaper. It read, in its entirety: “Sir, The only major conflict in which this country has ever “stood alone’’ without an ally on the continent was the War of American Independence in 1776-83. We lost.”
The main reason, however, for there being no shared vision of the future is that … we have no shared vision of the future. The Johnson government, in particular, represents an ultra-Brexity “very well, alone!” fantasy which is not shared even by many Conservatives.
In Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, after a bitter civil war and a long night of dictatorship, it was felt that the price of national unity was amnesia. In Britain after Brexit, the price of national unity is nostalgia.Yet precisely in this crisis we see what some of the ingredients of that shared future could be. A country that has superb scientists and universities, with an Oxford University team possibly about to create one of the first effective Covid-19 vaccines in the world and Imperial College London not far behind. A country with outstanding public service broadcasting – the BBC has had a good Covid-19 “war” – and other first-rate media and creative industries. A parliamentary democracy that functions well even when most of its representatives can’t physically meet in parliament. A society with a deep commitment to its National Health Service and to a strong welfare state. A place where doctors and nurses from all around the world, immigrants themselves or of immigrant background, take the lead in saving the lives of others, including that of the prime minister himself, tended in intensive care by nurses from Portugal and New Zealand.
The question now is who can articulate a vision for Britain in 2040, not 1940. Step forward Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, and propose a future to match Britain’s best past.• Timothy Garton Ash is a Guardian columnist Read more: The Guardian »
lordbonkers historian Michael Howard rebuked some “we did it alone” hubris in the Telegraph with this pithiest of letters, “Sir, The only major conflict in which this country has ever “stood alone’’ without an ally on the continent was the War of American Independence in 1776-83. We lost.” A county that lives in the past has no future.
Another shallow misrepresentation of devolved government to make a nationalist point. Eg Scotland: has full responsibility for all things health & is meant to operate in best interests of population - R is different. Guardian not reporting Sturgeon extreme failings again. That's probably because you have pricks like BenjaminButterworth working for the likes of your newspaper
Hmmm... Sounds like here in the states. Having said that I am not proud of much our history. Slavery, genocide and endless war come to mind. Feel free to change my mind. LobbyComm England will need to experience generations of post Brexit misery to finally come to terms with our new status as a low quality, xenophobic, poor country on the edge of the European continent
Tell us your vision for the country Timothy. A transexual multicultural paradise of 200 million living on universal income? As a headline, I think this sums us up perfectly. adamboultonSKY We can all help to shape the future, for the generations to come. Even those that continue to write articles that produce negative mindsets & av lack of understanding & praise for the many positives achieved & delivered over the past 50+ years & vs many of the 190 other countries
The Guardian crowd want a Britain where we celebrate the achievements of other nations ( like those of the Islamic World and Africa for instance) YET pour scorn over our own achievements both past and present! UK Plc has not had a clear medium/long term strategy many decades. Unlike virtually every competitor nation state. Bizarrely the Tories are even worse at this than the New Labour party.
Spot the trollbots...... The left struggles with Britain's past, this is why they will not be shaping our future! The trouble with the left is they value Palestinian nationalism more than English nationalism. Typical Guardian article. Bashing Britain's past, whilst going weak at the knees over Ramadan and Gay Pride 🙄
Depends which side you ask, it's only ever negativity from the left.
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