In his history of Britain, Andrew Marr sings a paean to the present

I’ve just watched the last episode of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain on the BBC’s miraculous i-Player and I’ve been trying to work out what story Marr has been telling. Marr has a nice eye for detail, deftly points out novelty and – as one would expect in a series like this – does the ad hominem stuff well, even if his decision to speak certain quotations in character robs him of some of his dignity. But I think that too often the totality – the story of modern Britain – was hidden by the hurly-burly of political events that so clearly fascinate Marr. He wants to tell lots of disconnected stories – about the austerity of the late 1940’s, the Winter of Discontent, the fall of Thatcher – but too often he fails to see past, or beyond, these stories. He was unable to put them properly in context or to draw out their significance.

That said, I think that there was a sort of thematic unity to Marr’s history. He has, consciously or not, taken up a stance towards British history. Marr is a Whig historian. Not the old-fashioned kind of Whig historian who chauvinistically celebrates the triumph of British Protestanism, Parliamentary institutions and liberty over Stuart despotism and Popish reaction, but a new kind with a shorter memory and a different historical focus.

Marr started in 1945 because that’s the most convenient starting-point for the telling of this narrative. Like all Whig history, it is our story, the story of the present – the narrative of how we came to be. It comes complete with challenges (always overcome), enemies (invariably vanquished) and heroes (unfailingly prescient figures who have divined the overall direction of history). The New Whig history is one in which Britain emerges from World War Two a much-changed nation in a much-changed world. Exhausted from the struggle, staggering under the weight of its Empire, its will worn away almost to nothing it confronts the nuclear age, the Cold War, powerful anti-imperialist movements and a pack of furiously developing economic competitors. Britain is adrift in the world, no longer at home, lost, broken. It has lost faith in itself. The story of the next sixty years is the story of Britain’s struggle to redefine itself in a post-imperial world of diminished power and to rediscover the lost economic dynamism of its Victorian heyday.

After the material struggles of the immediate post-war years Britain seemed to enter a period of decline from the late 1950’s onward. There was talk of the ‘stagnant society,’ there were numerous currency crises. Britain suffered traumatic ‘stagflation’ and industrial unrest made Britain at times seem ungovernable. She was the ‘sick man of Europe’ living on IMF handouts, internationally irrelevant. Enter Thatcher. In the Whiggish narrative a combination of Thatcherite economic shock therapy and Falklands jingoism restored British economic strength and self-belief. In those years Britain, at the price of terrible suffering, modernized its economy and broke the political power of the unions at home, and signaled in the South Atlantic that it had both the power and the will to play a role on the world stage. Britain was not played out; its best days were not behind it. As Blair said a decade later, it was ‘a young country.’

Britain had met her economic challenges; she had re-established her international influence by augmenting the Special Relationship and entering the European Union; but she had also outgrown an older, constricting identity. Britain was no longer staid, conformist and prim; people no longer knew their place. Instead – here with a nod to the heroic liberalizing Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins – Britain was a country comfortable with itself, a tolerant, open, liberal society. From guilty imperium Britain had transformed itself into a multiracial, multicultural society in which toleration meant that all ways of life were able to flourish. The Empire had come home, in some neatly parabolic reconciliation.

I poke fun at it because the need which it fulfils to celebrate the present and the liberal values on which it is parasitic are so poorly hidden, but you can’t write a history that doesn’t clandestinely or openly serve a purpose. In Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase, there is no ‘view from nowhere.’ It strikes me, though, that this sort of paradigm for understanding British history is best looked at alongside another. The narrative of loss, the nostalgician’s history, can perhaps be told just as compellingly. Britain has undoubtedly become richer and more dynamic than ever before, but the underside of that success is dissolution, fragmentation and fear.

In 1945 Britain knew itself. It was a solid, stable society of given identities with families, churches and local communities acting as powerful socialising influences. People were more trusting of their politicians and of each other. Restlessness, dissatisfaction and the lust for new experience weren’t yet culturally embedded.

Today Britain is fragmented, a society of shards in which the lack of shared experience and values means that there is an absence of mutuality. The old centres of authority have been dethroned. People no longer trust their politicians; the Church has become attenuated; the standing of teachers is no longer what it was; family breakdown sees half of all marriages end in divorce. In a society as non-prescriptive as ours people no longer have a clear sense of what is expected of them or of what it means to be British.

When this cultural dissolution is combined with economic developments like globalisation, hyper-consumerism and mass in-migration you get a society that is lacking in something integral. Britain today is frightened, anxious. Its young people are knife-wielding islanders straight out of Lord of the Flies; its immigrant populations are potential terrorists; its underclass threatens to poison the rest of the social organism. The only consolations that seem to be offered us are consumer products and a banalized, celebrity-obsessed cultural world.

This story is just as partial and politically compromised as the Whig history and I’m not sure that it is any more valuable to us, but it has just as much claim to be the British story as Marr’s does. Perhaps it also avoids one of the ironies of Marr’s story. The liberal Whig story is a narrative of national celebration that ultimately aims at the transcendence of a national story. Its celebration of globalisation, European integration and multilateralism in foreign policy is the celebration of convergence – of the creation of a homogenous liberal democratic West. The new challenges that the Whig story faces are not challenges specific to any one nation. Terrorism, global financial crises, energy shortages and climate change are all collective challenges: either we will succeed in meeting them together, or we will fail together. Marr’s Whig national history seems self-dissolving.

One final point. Marr’s is an external narrative, a history of British behaviour, not of Britain. One of the things that a history of Britain should do – perhaps the crucial thing that it should do – is to penetrate the British national consciousness. The true student of national history craves interiority, depth – an understanding of what it is to live in a place at a particular time from within. One wants to know what the historical subjects value, how they see themselves, what things like democracy and friendship mean to them. The national historian has to have a keen eye and a penetrating intelligence, only then will they have chance to notice these submerged changes that are so easily seen without being recognised.

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