Magazine article The Spectator

Outward Bound

Magazine article The Spectator

Outward Bound

Article excerpt

THE post-war period in Britain can be seen, in retrospect, as a period of soulsearching and from the independence of India in 1947 to the Hong Kong handover half a century later, a 50-year quest to define a new identity for ourselves in the world in the face of profound changes around and affecting us.

In the 1950s, Harold Macmillan tried to give us a role as civilised Athens to the thrusting Rome of the United States.

By the 1970s, it was clear that no party had yet succeeded in forging a new modem identity for Britain. And Margaret Thatcher arrived with the promise that she - and only she - could make us great again by stripping away the post-war acretions of corporatism to reveal the true Britain beneath.

To her great credit she recognised the need for Britain to reinvent itself and rediscover a new and vital self-confidence, and understood that we could gain strength from the glories of our past which could point the way to a glorious future.

In reaction to the failures of the postwar corporatist state, she argued for a fullblooded individualism as the British way, indeed that all that was needed was a rediscovery of `Victorian values', which she construed as a minimal state and a culture of self-help.

But a moment's consideration tells us that even Victorian society was grounded in a more complex interplay between the claims of self-interest, duty and fairness. In counterpoising self-interest to collectivism without considering the importance British people attached to fair play and to belonging to a society, the Thatcherites mistook historical circumstances - the retreat from old-style collectivism - for eternal truths.

In her attempt to rebuild Britain's postimperial position, Mrs Thatcher believed our post-war status could be resurrected by being a junior partner to the United States in a Cold War crusade. Britain, it was argued, could afford to ignore Europe. But once the communist threat evaporated, there was little left to validate our international position.

In rebuilding the concept of Britishness from individual self-interest and mistrust of foreigners, a very narrow base indeed, the Tories did not appreciate that our most glorious achievements flowed from a Britishness that is far more complex and sophisticated than the one Mrs Thatcher and her supporters mythologised.

We should be clear that our sense of being British matters as much as ever. Of course cultural and economic globalisation has had a profound effect on our sense of ourselves. For some global challenges the nation state may be too small, hence the fashionable but in my view erroneous view that the concept of national identity has declining relevance. For some local challenges it may be too big, hence the interest in and support for devolution and in particular a Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

But the Scottish people, for the most part, have no difficulty in being Scottish and British. Indeed the lesson of devolution is that it is because national identity resides essentially in people that reform of institutions can take place without diminishing British national identity.

I believe that when we talk about the character of a country, we are not talking about some mystery of the blood or a pattern on a flag, just as we are not talking only about its traditional institutions. We are talking about the qualities of a people, of the collective experience they have shared over time.

Britain's island position has, for some, been an excuse for insularity of mind, but it is precisely because we are a group of small islands bounded by the sea that we have always looked beyond our own horizons.

Our history is not, as John Major once famously - erroneously - said, one of 1,000 years of union between our peoples but - and this is the real historical point - of 200 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships that have created a uniquely rich and diverse culture. …

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