Even a historian identified with optimism about the UK despairs about the country’s current predicament. Is revival possible?
Earlier this decade we all watched as France entered one of its terminal historical crises. Now it is Britain that has lost definition – or should that be England, or the United Kingdom? No longer can a national intellectual such as George Orwell set down a few thoughts about our aversion to conscription and fascism and our liking for a drink, as he did in 1941 in The Lion and the Unicorn, and we will all nod because we recognise ourselves. What united the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower with the billionaires of Kensington Palace Gardens and the parishioners shuffling into the church of St Mary Abbots every Sunday, other than their residency of the same London borough?
John Major’s “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs” were greeted with sniggers when the Tory prime minister brought them up in a speech in 1993 (he also mentioned Orwell). Nowadays we measure ourselves against flattering abstractions – liberty, enterprise, tolerance – but these are universal values and may be found more abundantly elsewhere. Only as individuals, or as groups holding little flags of race, gender or sexuality, can we put who we are into words.