British Grand Narratives (and not such grand ones too)

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What’s our story? Do we even have one as a country, and anyway, does it matter? As one attempt at an answer to these questions, I had the interesting experience recently of visiting the imperial splendour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall (the FCO is tactfully able to retain its abbreviation with the ‘C’ now standing for Commonwealth rather than Colonial). The occasion was a conference on the notion of British ‘decline’ and questioning this as a national historical narrative. Jointly organised by Queen Mary University, the Mile End Institute and the FCO, the conference examined the notion of ‘decline’ which is so commonplace in British historiography since 1945 that it seems questionable whether historians can even talk about Britain in this period without producing a narrative of ‘decline’.

Decline is a concept that has been the post-war lens for examining a variety of aspects of British life, including decolonisation, diminishing world influence, gradual erosion of manufacturing and exports, and a stagnating domestic economy plagued by industrial dispute and heavy debt. Sounds sort of familiar to many of us Britons growing up in the second half of the 20th C, doesn’t it?

Key speaker at the conference, Prof David Reynolds, examined several British grand narratives – and as he put it, some not so grand ones. Of course, number one was ‘decline’, followed by Europeanisation, and then multiculturalism. They all have their problems for becoming an attractive narrative. Britain is always the ‘awkward’ European and ambivalent about our relationship to the main continent, so it’s hard for Europeanisation to become our grand narrative in the way it has for France and Germany. And ‘multiculturalism’ can seem an attractive new narrative for Britain, but in order for this to work, we would first need to come to terms with with our Empire history; and we’ve hardly begun to do that.

Decline is still the way the British story is usually written and thought about. Yet it is not just a simple story of the rise and then subsequent decline of The Empire and of Britain. Yes, the vast Empire is gone (thankfully), but what is less well known is that from about the second half of the 19th C onwards, The Empire was more of a financial burden to Britain than an asset. Policing the seven seas to protect The Empire cost more than it gave back in return.

Now, far from having sunk into oblivion, Britain is actually the 5th largest economy in the world. London is one of the top financial cities in the world with huge reach. Britain also has great global influence in the creative industries these days, rather than in the old manufacturing sector. And despite our continuing inequality, Britain has really rebounded pretty well since the devastation and bankruptcy of the country following WWII.

What seemed to really cement the post WWII and post Empire notions of decline as our narrative, was the decade of the 1970s. Stories from the 70s of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, our being ‘the sick man of Europe’, the 3 day week, rubbish rotting on the streets, bodies lying unburied during a gravediggers’ strike, all somehow crystallised a British myth of decline that has never left us. A poignant quote from historian Dominic Sandbrook writing about the 70s, and the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan is worth pondering for a moment to let it sink in,

‘Even Callaghan himself seemed to have little faith in his native land. In November 1974 he told his colleagues, “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength – and that is running out. And,” he went on, “If I were a young man, I should emigrate.”

Hmm… and from no less than the PM of the time himself. Grand narratives are powerful myths and have a strong influence on all of us. A grand or metanarrative is a story about a story, which aims to encompass and explain other ‘small stories’ within totalizing schemes. How true they are, is of course, another matter.

For example, American historian George Bernstein, in his book about Britain since WWII, The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain Since 1945, comes to a very different and counterbalancing analysis:

‘Apart from the catastrophic decades of the 1920s and the 1970s, both linked to larger worldwide economic phenomena, the peacetime story (in Britain) has been one of growth and prosperity.’

Bernstein asserts from studying the economic figures, that Britain has done a remarkable job of transformation, and that the country since WWII was actually not fundamentally in decline, when for everyone here, that is an unquestioned and often unconscious given. Of course, he’s not British, which helps on a subject so close to us natives. For example, he points out that Britain’s annual growth rate from 1951-73 was higher than in all previous time periods including the most powerful periods of empire, and this growth was really impressive, given the devastation of WWII.

Of course, I haven’t given any answer to what could or should be our current narrative, if we are to have one at all. But I think it’s better to have a more conscious story than merely one such as ‘decline’ which is absorbed largely semi consciously from our culture. And I don’t think it is fit for purpose any more. Do we need a story, anyway? I think so, since we live by stories and myths far more than we imagine, and that is not a bad thing. Life is a story, after all.

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