Reports of Britain's death have been greatly exaggerated, says Andrew Calcutt
According to the latest spate of cheery commentary about British life and culture, the nation is on its last legs. Journalist Andrew Marr prophesises in The Day Britain Died (the book of the BBC2 TV series), that 'if Britain is not reimagined and restored, Britain will die as a state and as a constitutional tradition'. In After Britain, old New Leftist Tom Nairn declares that Britain must die - but then, he's been queuing up for the lying-in-state since 1977 when he published The Break-Up of Britain: crisis and neo-nationalism. Meanwhile, the black 'devil's advocate' Darcus Howe has been on an ethnographic tour of the local White Tribe (Channel 4), only to find that the British are more like a lost tribe.
Published or broadcast in January 2000, these books and TV programmes were researched in the year of Scottish and Welsh devolution. To varying degrees of success, they give substance to the death-of-Britain sentiment which entered circulation around the time of the state opening of national assemblies in Scotland and Wales, prompting novelist Irvine Welsh to declare that British identity is in 'terminal decline'. 'Mis-manager' Malcolm McLaren, who made his name by encouraging the Sex Pistols to spit at powerful British institutions such as the monarchy, pondered: 'what does British mean now? Is there even such a thing as British?'
But the obituarists are premature. Within the Changing UK, the BBC's recent instruction book to journalists, requires acknowledgement of 'the nations of England, Scotland and Wales' - but this does not mean that 'British' has been banned by the United Kingdom's own broadcasters. Likewise, at the very moment when the Scottish and Welsh assemblies were opening their doors, allegedly signalling the end of Britain, two prominent airlines were racing to claim the Union Flag for their livery. Having previously abandoned it in favour of tailfins painted with African jackals and Chinese calligraphy, British Airways reintroduced the Union Jack only hours before Virgin unveiled its own Union Jack logos. Last summer's competition to 'fly the flag' indicates that British is still a label which some people want to be identified with.
Those bashing nails into Britain's coffin seem to have buried their sense of recent history. Only a few years ago, Channel 4 and BBC2 were overloaded with reports claiming that British was the coolest brand in the world. Britpop, a buzzword invented in the offices of a Camden PR company, fired a broadside at American grunge and came to rule the airwaves. When Britpop converged with the impossibly enthusiastic response to Mark Leonard's idea of 'rebranding Britain', Cool Britannia was born. In its two-year reign (1995-7), this label launched a thousand chat shows, op-ed pieces and magazine covers - more than this year's model, the death-of-Britain debate. When Cool Britannia began to suffer from the dead hand of official patronage, it was swiftly superseded by the notion of New Britain, initiated by New Labour and catalysed by the death of Princess Diana. Far from being a kingdom on the brink of dissolution, we were said to be a nation united in grief like never before.
From unity to dissolution in the space of two years? This sort of tossing and turning only occurs in the fevered imagination of the media-cracy. But even their flights of fancy are derived from something more solid.
The common experience underlying both the morbid vision of Dead Britain and the wishful thinking of Cool Britannia is the real experience of British decline. The veteran commentator AH Halsey put his finger on it in the introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Social Trends: 'At the beginning of the [twentieth] century, the Union Flag flew over a fifth of the world's people and territory. At the end, its fluttering was confined to one hundredth of the world's population. Accordingly, the story might be interpreted as one of rapid decline, especially if nothing else had changed to offset our nineteenth-century notions and means of empire.'
Cool Britannia was an attempt to offset the now discredited 'notions and means of empire' of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nation which no longer ruled the waves tried to reimagine itself as Creative Britain - not the workshop but the recording studio of the world. In this context the Union Jack took on different connotations: less to do with Lord Kitchener (figurehead of Edwardian glory days), and closer to I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet (camp 1960s boutique which sent up the imperial legacy). Similarly, in canonising Princess Diana and declaring 'New Britain', the British elite made a public disavowal of its previous methods; henceforth it promised to put emotionalism and victimhood on a pedestal, instead of looking up to old-fashioned figures of power and authority.
In recent years British institutions have engaged in successive bouts of self- flagellation, so desperate are they to distance themselves from what were once considered the glories of the past. But this paroxysm has corrosive consequences. If the British tradition is so moribund, why bother trying to breathe new life in to it at all? The death-of-Britain thesis is in fact a continuation of reimagining Britain as Cool or New. The common elements underlying all three are the experience of irreversible decline and the uncontrolled desire to get away from Britain's imperial record.
This is imperialism in denial - but imperialism nonetheless. Although the yardsticks were changed (CD sales instead of steel output, Blur and Oasis in place of Dreadnoughts and Trident), Cool Britannia was still an attempt to raise Britain's standing in a competitive, culture-driven world. Similarly, New Britain eschewed old-style authority, but catalysed a new tyranny of grief (we have ways of making your mourn). Whereas Margaret Thatcher and John Major reran British history as a heritage panto ('Victorian values', 'Back to basics', the Falklands War as imperial farce), Tony Blair seeks other ways of reclaiming Britain's geopolitical role and re-establishing legitimacy here at home - raining bombs on Kosovo in a 'humanitarian' war, and crying with the People at Diana's funeral. Blair's methods are decidedly different, but he faces the same historic problems. In the very attempt to get away from Britain's past, New Labour shows how inescapable it is.
Andrew Calcutt's BritCult: an A-Z of British pop culture is published by Prion in March
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000