England, Whose England?

By Thursfield, Patrick | Contemporary Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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England, Whose England?


Thursfield, Patrick, Contemporary Review


Whatever Tony Blair may have to say about it, it is getting harder and harder not to think of England in terms of Dr Who and The Archers on one side and political 'sleaze' on the other. They all seem in search of an identity. Dr Who tries Time Travel to see where he fits in best; the Archers have become so socially mobile that they might just as well be in Leamington (where at least one recent character in the popular BBC Radio Four soap spent more time than he should), while sleaze is now as much a part of the uniform of a politician on the make as a rolled umbrella used to be for a stock-broker. Reading Clive Aslet's new book (Anyone for England - A Search for British Identity. Little Brown. [pounds]17.50) has caused me to reflect on England today.

Does this search for a (new?) identity stem from the American obsession with image-making (or breaking)? It certainly suggests that the individual does not possess one until the public relations boys have had a go at him. Now we hear much of 'New Labour's"New Britain', a 'young country', as the Government's glitzy video proclaimed to the recent Commonwealth Conference. Of course, for Members of Parliament, especially backbenchers, be they eager New Boys or tired old failures, one of the best ways of drawing attention to one's professional assiduity is to Ask Questions. Ah, you may ask, but what questions to ask? This is where the political public relations consultant steps in. He knows what questions should be asked because he is paid to get them asked; and his clients are political parties and international and national businesses eager to have legislation changed in their favour. There are others in the lobbying business but I'm sure you get the feel of what I am suggesting. The point is that it is all a commercial operation starting with the client, through to the consultant, to the agent (in the sense of he 'who does the actual work'). Money passes at each stage or, if not actual money, things that cost money are paid for by some-one other than the consumer. All this equals 'sleaze' in the current fashionable terminology. It used to be called 'corruption' if you were against it, or 'the Old Boy network' if you were part of it. You pays your money, you takes your pick: but the point is that money always passed, in one way or another, and this is because money has always had an allure to which even sex, at least in England, has always played second fiddle, if you will excuse the term. And the target of the lobbyist is more often than not members of the party in power because questions asked by one's own side carry more weight than those by the party in opposition. I suspect that we will now hear less about Tory sleaze than we did in the months leading up to the May election, and we are now learning many tales of Labour sleaze, especially in Scotland.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple always said that village life was a microcosm of human experience, good and bad. Living myself in a village (for the dwindling little international colony in Tangier hardly qualifies to be called anything else, and indeed has much in common with St. Mary Mead) I sometimes, on my usual twice-yearly sojourns in England, wonder if things have changed at all since I moved to Morocco, apart from the disappearance of cap-doffing. It is then that I begin to take stock and soon come to realise that though the innumerable physical and economic changes that are everywhere visible are not in themselves evidence that spots have been changed (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose), there does seem to have been a general increase in pettiness and spite in private as well as public life. Politicians have always stabbed each other in the back and changed their allegiances to suit their career prospects. Winston Churchill, when teased by a well-known peeress for having done something he had always declared was against his principles, is said to have replied: 'Never forget, dear lady, that a politician's political creed will always give way to his personal ambition!

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