The Day Britain Died

Wednesday, February 2, 2000 by

As I may have said elsewhere, these are auspicious times.

The old order is dead. The new order is suffering a traumatic birth. In his book and TV series, Observer journalist Andrew Marr has captured a moment.

In programme one, recalling his middle-class Scottish childhood, Marr evoked the old sense of “Britishness” he was once taught, which has now faded into history. The whole programme was a fascinating journey of discovery, but a few moments stood out – the articulacy of Scottish football fans clearly surprised Marr, and showed the spread of anti-English feeling. The use of Catatonia’s howl of “Every day when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh” over scenes of an Eisteddfod was a masterstroke – it underlined the way that Welshness is now defined simultaneously in ancient and modern terms, a nation more self-confident and at ease with itself than at any other time in living memory.

In programme two, mostly concerned with Britain’s integration in Europe, Marr dissected the essential difference between France and Britain – the French see themselves as Europeans and place great importance on “cultural identity” as a symbol of who they are, fearing globalisation and America, while the British love these standardising forces and continue to fear Europe. Its account of the effects of globalisation showed the impossibility of cultural isolation in the modern world, and, like Darcus Howe, Marr pointed out the irony that the Thatcher government, which promoted the restoration of old “British” values, introduced policies that brought on the now inevitable, unstoppable force of globalisation. In this context, right-wing voices like Peter Hitchens and Bernard Ingham seemed hopelessly out of time.

In programme three, Marr correctly identified the summer of 1977 as being one of the turning points in British history – a transitional period between the old monopoly Britishness and the current post-consensus age, as the celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (an attempt to revive the universal self-confidence that had followed, and been encouraged by, her coronation in 1953) jarred badly with the punk movement, the decay of Callaghan’s Labour government and the rise of the National Front. As Billy Bragg said, it was then that the multi-cultural society we have now was painfully taking shape, and there was a succession of reactionary movements to prevent it – Thatcher being the last gasp of imperialism, desperately trying to throw a dead culture back into shape. Marr related modern-day rebellions, like the Poll Tax riots of 1990 which did so much to bring down Thatcher, back to peasant revolts, Chartism and the suffragettes, and currently identified the latter as the other great British tradition, a corrective to the vision of calm, quiet, “unchanging” rurality cherished by John Major. The scenes of environmental protest revealed the ever-strengthening backlash against big corporations, and the strength of anti-New Labour feeling among Britain’s rural tribes was revealed by scenes of a game fair in Yorkshire, and an interview with the organic farmer Robin Page, best known as presenter of One Man and His Dog, of all things.

Page may have seemed deeply intolerant, if not paranoid (he seemed convinced that New Labour had a gang of storm troopers who were waiting to kill him because he does not use the internet) but you only have to read about the hostile reception Blair received last week from certain West Country farmers, or scan the pro-hunting and anti-Blair editorials regularly published in the Telegraph and Mail, to realise that Page’s Britain retains its strength.

But, one suspects, it will not retain that strength forever. It was the scenes in Brick Lane which revealed most about the way this country is really going – where once we gave our culture to the world, now the world is giving its cultures to us, and changing us irrevocably. You feel that this Britain, with its ability to change and evolve, will outlast the Britain cherished by Page, which has developed an almost fetishistic attachment to its traditions, and now seems trapped by what it once was.

The Day Britain Died left no ultimate answers and plenty of questions – but that’s where Britain is at the moment. It presented an ultimate collision soon to come between two completely different ideas of “identity”. In years to come, I think people will look back to this programme as a snapshot of Britain at a crucial stage of transition.


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