In search of British values

By Tom Nairn – An extract from a feature in Prospect Magazine, October 2007

Since Gordon Brown’s appearance as United Kingdom premier, assorted premonitions have surfaced in the gloom. Britlanders now inhabit a haunted house on the edge of a cemetery, where such terminology seems appropriate. Brown was not of course elected or installed by an indignant mob: over many years he materialised in fits and starts, glimpsed intermittently like a ghost from times past, brooding but saying almost nothing. Then suddenly the spirit was there, seated all too comfortably in the Anglo-Brit living room, account books and Britannic sermons to hand. The armchair’s previous occupant had left for Jerusalem.

Such is death-in-life. The funniest sequence in Edgar Wright’s movie Shaun of the Dead (2004) was where Shaun, seeing that the living were now besieged by zombies, organises a pretend-resurrection class at which people learn to stumble and stare properly, groaning in broken graveyard English. But that was just prediction: reality is worse. No Shaun has appeared to rally the English. David Cameron seems convinced the mausoleum can be maintained by New-Dawn-speak—itself another trait of the late-Brit times, perfected by Blair. “Better yesterday” had long been the UK’s chosen route to modernity. Under Brown it has reached its terminus.

The key zombie aim is graveyard peace: a new consensus to leave the sacred essence unaltered amid ritual round-table acclaim, all-change orations and deference-tours of the Washington Beltway. Serious constitutional commentators like Anthony King and Vernon Bogdanor have been appalled not by Brown’s radicalism but by his timidity. However, what the famed indecisiveness masks is death wish: Posthumous greatness at all costs, including Trident and two new super-super-aircraft-carriers.

In Shaun the graveyard ghouls came back for another try—and set about devouring the living to do so. Brown’s immediate aim will be a funerary binge, at which the creaking Westminster gates will be locked up for many years: general election is the term. Such is the man’s appeal for everything times-past that under 20 per cent of voters might pull it off (in 2005, 21.5 per cent got him where he is today). All Brown-Britland needs is enough non-voters—plus just enough Lib Dems to furnish a reluctant alibi for the gnarled gatekeeper, as the rusting bolt grinds home.

Could it have been different? Well of course, had thorough reform of the central apparatus accompanied devolution—and all that. In hypothetical retrospect, perfectly modest changes like a fairer electoral system might have partly freed the English people. Now, however, the sole possible answer is condemned by all true Brits as completely unthinkable. Which merely returns one to the point, the only one that matters. Plausible as a confederated Council of the Isles (or something like that) might have been, it’s now too late. Failed states can reach the buffers at the end of their track, Brownism is zomboid victory, and that’s that.

This has begun to dawn on both the Scots and the Welsh, and (even more surprisingly) the Northern Irish. Michael Fry argued in Prospect a year ago that for Scots the only way out from Britland Cemetery is out; and I wholeheartedly agree with him. But what about the English? Well…Shaun, Shaun, where are you?

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