England’s dreaming – narratives of nationhood

Royal Wedding day, and a lot of mixed emotions for this lefty republican – fury and boredom at the hype in the weeks leading up to it; ironic reflection at the way those two old English revolutionaries, John Milton and William Blake, had their words appropriated by the Royal pageantry (while the designer of Ms Middleton’s dress sought to channel William Morris); as an ex-chorister, excitement at the thrill of the musical performance in the Abbey; horrified by the misreading of history and the witless cliches as BBC presenters describe Victorian propagandist rituals as the products of a thousand years of history; as a socialist, repelled and fascinated by the interaction between people, media and monarchy; as a Green, touched by the conflict between the appropriateness and the absurdity of the trees in the Abbey.

And yet it seems to me that there are two narratives in play here. One is the officially sanctioned one – the pomp and pageantry, the rhetoric of nationhood, the belief that we are all in this together and that we are somehow empowered as a nation by the opportunity to wave flags and hold street parties. The other – one that is just as much part of British and more specifically English history – is that of an overweening state, in which we are subjects of the Crown and not citizens, and in which the police (or perhaps their political masters) sanction the arrest and detention of people who they think might want to protest against the established order. even while the ceremony is under way, Cameron’s government announces a further set of cuts to the NHS. And all this, without irony, in the same breath as we talk about British freedoms.

It’s not new. Christopher Hill in his great history of the English revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, reports the case of a woman who was hanged for declaring that she “would not give a fart for his grace of Canterbury”; now, a professor of anthropology is arrested for the grievous offence of planning dissenting street theatre;

Thirty years ago, when William Windsor’s parents married, I was an undergraduate at an ancient university, the first member of my family to have the chance of a university education, paid for entirely by the state. Now, university is a luxury for those who can afford to pay, or who are prepared to contemplate a life mired in debt. In a corner of my ancient university lurked the Bullingdon Club, mocked by me and my contemporaries as a decadent adolescent irritation staffed by a class in decline; now their network is at the heart of the political and economic establishment, taking the jobs, services and benefits of the most vulnerable to pay for the failures of their chums in the city.

In the ensuing years, divisions in society have got vastly wider, which is why the establishment needs this narrative of social unity and is so determined to clamp down on dissent that threatens it. In 1981 the anger was against Thatcher; the anger now is against a corrupt, overweening system with Royalty – perhaps surpising itself in the process – at its apex.

The patriotic, one-nation narrative is seductive in a world where uncertainties mount by the day. But it’s false, and a true patriot – one who eschews flag-waving and the repetition of stale monarchist formulae – must believe that Britain deserves better than this. This is the rhetoric of a failed society, one that is afraid to look itself in the mirror and relies on nostalgia for a society that never really existed; we’re being drawn back into a past in which rights we take for granted were yet to be won, and we need to wake up and stop the dreaming now.

There is an alternative English narrative; one of struggle for democracy and political rights, one to which those arrested on suspicion that they might think republican thoughts clearly belong, as do the activists who occupy banks and turn them into creches. Dreamers, perhaps, but more honest and closer to reality than those who dose their despair with gorgeous pageantry.

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