Published on 16 Sep 2014

Celebrating Britishness: politics without the politicians

Quiet, poetry, the scraggy romanticism of Bob Geldof, his time-etched face; restraint, manners, stoicism. Frank Sinatra crooning out of the speakers. A gaggle of union jack-waving City types; a neo-liberal posse from the Spectator offices in grey suits.

This was the scene at #LetsStayTogether in Trafalgar Square last night (see video), where about 4,000 demonstrators came to offer a different message than just “no”.  Those predicting it to be a washout – “three Tories and a foxhound” – were disappointed.

But the demo – though it did not cause Met Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe to erect his steel barrier across Whitehall – was in its own way a challenge to the old order.

For this was politics without the politicians. Michael Gove stood silently in the crowd and so, reportedly, did Nick Clegg. But on the platform it was Eddie Izzard (Labour-voting progressive), Al Murray (anti-racist Cockney comedian), Dan Snow (TV war historian for a pacifist generation) and Geldof.

Geldof’s speech brought a cold silence to Trafalgar Square: he spoke quietly and passionately about his rejection of borders and nationalities; Izzard took up the same theme. Snow, in an interview with me, railed against the drawing of borders across a single island (while simultaneously wearing a t-shirt showing Northern Ireland separate from the Republic).

This is a kind of Britishness that has not been on offer. Not just in the referendum campaign, but even during Gordon Brown’s period of obsession with “Britishness” .

It’s not far off from the national character George Orwell describes in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius – the gentility, self-effacement, rejection of bombast. At that time, in 1942, the “national” values were so universal that a leftist like Orwell could without embarrassment use the word “English” to describe the enture UK.

So the rally, whose influence on Thursday’s vote may turn out to be insignificant, may be significant for UK (or rUK) politics after Thursday.

It was a mass cultural expression, drawing in the centre left and centre right, of a set of values rarely un-expressed by the politicians of said centre left and right. It was shorn of rhetoric, and most importantly at odds with the attempt to create a loud, strident, plebeian “British” national consciousness that both Labour and Con-Lib governments have tried.

This, in turn, may be because the latter cannot exist.

I’ve been thinking about what was different to the vibe last night and, say, the Olympic opening ceremony designed by Danny Boyle. Boyle’s spectacle was brash, drew on a Brits-via-Hollywood meme, and placed heavy stress on working class culture (Abide With Me) and the folk traditions of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The Dan Snow/Bob Geldof version drew much more on poetry, the non-national and even laid claim to internationalism (The Night Mail, by gay, communist conscientious objector WH Auden was read out.)

So maybe, if you want a Britishness that exists at a higher level than medleys of regional folk songs, this is what you have to accept.

There was no mention of royalty, or Dunkirk. Nobody shouted “British jobs for British workers”,  as Gordon Brown did to the Labour party conference once.

You can have strident English nationalism of the EDL and generations of far right football hooligans. You can have the progressive English nationalism we saw around Euro 96. You can have the sturm und drang available to both sides in Northern Ireland, or the soaring, class-based patriotism that transports rugby crowds at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

But maybe you can’t have a strident *British* nationalism. Maybe that’s the subtextual mistake all those lectern-banging politicians have been making. Maybe it has to be something quiet.

In Scotland we’ve had, for the past few months, a sustained and substantial glimpse of a grassroots campaign in which politicians are secondary and street-magic primary.

The rest of the cabinet should envy Gove and Clegg: last night they got the closest look at what a phenomenon like that might look like if it came south of the border.

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16 reader comments

  1. Jon Goode says:

    John Harris’s piece on the working class UKIP vote in Eastern England shows another side

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2014/sep/15/ukip-england-east-world-upside-down-video

    The same disillusionment is present up here in the North East (UKIP is also doing well in Hartlepool).

    Mainstream politics have failed in the post-industrial landscapes of Britain.

    And no-one has failed more than Labour.

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    “Liberal” – neo or otherwise – is not a word I would use to describe a Spectator mouthpiece.

    Try “Ayn Rand nutcase.” It fits better.

    Just as “Bullingdon Baboon” describes Boris Johnson and his public school creeps.

    “National character” is an absurd notion, a rallying cry for the disenfranchised and paranoid, useful only at times of threat. Sooner or later – probably much, much later – the delusion will evolve out.

    I prefer the better instincts of humanity. And these are not defined by borders or “nationalities” or “race,” or – worst of all – religion. They are the qualities we need to live in peace and fairness. If the species fails to assert them the future is bleak indeed.

  3. stevenson says:

    Auden’s ‘night mail’ is ironic in the circumstances. The night mail crossed the border because the railway was a unifier for Auden’s Britain and the network was pushed, unquestioningly, into every corner of the country. There is no aspiration for High Speed rail to serve a similar purpose. Is that just cost, or is it another measure of the fragmentation of Britain ?

  4. Robin Kinross says:

    Good piece, Paul, and it says something that no-one else has noticed yet.

    But in Trafalgar Square there was an awful lot of looking back, and no looking forward. That’s very unlike the independence campaign in Scotland, which is overwhelmingly forward-looking.

    Just about Nightmail: where is the poetry in that journey now? The trains are run by Virgin (offshore owned) and the soon-to-be-sold-off East Coast company. The Royal Mail has been sold off. Mail is now also delivered by TNT (headquarters where?). In this sense, of a shared country, with shared national services, Britain is over.

    1. stevenson says:

      The use of ‘night mail’ in the rally was part of a prevalent backward looking evocation of a Britain which has gone. The point about Auden’s poem is that nothing like it could written today. Scotland has produced a forward looking independence movement which has conspicuously avoided images of the past and which is a much more relevant response to Britain today.

  5. anon says:

    we might celebrate fighting for justice, fighting illness, overcoming adversity, helping those suffering, bringing peace where war has been a scourge of a land, and shout from the rooftops how important and urgent this all is, but this is not Britishness as such, whatever this is, but is the property of right thinking caring, passionate people around the world, in every country and nation, and exemplified if I might say so by outstanding news teams such as yourselves at Channel 4 news who take such great risks to show us the pain around the world so that those who can, and have the will, can celebrate the virtues above by their actions to end this distress.

  6. Philip says:

    “Britishness” is a myth, foisted on us by the media & politicians with axes to grind. We’ve always been defined as much by our differences than by our similarities. What has always bound us together is a (sometimes jokey) acceptance & understanding of these differences. One reason why so many different people have come to the UK over the ages and added to what we think of as Britishness – including Celts, Romans, Danes, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Lombards, Huguenots, Jews, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, West Indians, West Africans, Maltese, Italians, French, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Chinese, Philippinos, etc, etc.
    I’m old enough to remember a day when 3 staples of “British” food were pretty well unknown – pizzas, curries & Chinese food.
    It seems to me that “Britishness” is mostly about toleration. You might equally call it laziness, cowardice or the form of insularity which means you don’t both too much with what goes on beyond your own front door. Of course, underlying it – especially when immigrants are relatively new, there’ve been ugly currents of racism – reinforced when economic & social times are hard as they continue to be for most people in the UK (despite the “growth” which has benefitted but a few).. But – and I can recall a more mono-white country (where the recent immigrants were war time Poles & Ukrainians and recent escapees from Hungary), where people with brown skins were treated without respect. Now – 50 years later – we have to take an example the children/grandchildren of West Indian immigrants competing for the UK at sport, appearing on the TV, being influential MPs, etc. Of course, problems remain, but our short termist vision of life and the tendency of the media to exaggerate and excite blind us to the ability the British have shown (more than many countries in the world) to adapt and, often, to benefit from this changing world.

  7. Tim Page says:

    Very interesting. I wonder if politics without the ‘stars’ is possible (or might it become possible)? People went to Trafalgar Square to hear Izzard, Geldof and co. The key question might be how to get them to turn out for Joe Bloggs or Mary Smith. And a demonstration, whilst important, is a one-off political activity. How to get non-politicians to organise community campaigns? And what relationship should mainstream politics try to have with such activity if it happened? I think the most important thing that could happen to heal the crisis in politics would be to get more non-politicians doing politics. To somehow create a space between political activists and the non-involved/apathetic/sceptical. Encouraging more voting, especially among the young, would be a start.

  8. Rob says:

    “But maybe you can’t have a strident *British* nationalism”.

    This, it seems to me, is a very good reason for preserving the union.

    The activist Left in England have been notably ego-centric in their backing of Scottish independence, thinking nothing of the destruction of the UK in their idealistic reverie.

  9. Wilma Miller says:

    I am afraid that this ‘grassroots’ movement you speak about it is a heavily orchestrated campaign which rests on a barely concealed anti-Englishness and an extraordinary ability to ignore facts and go for ‘groupthink’ and demagogues.

    I feel very sad because I don’t know my country any more.

  10. CWH says:

    What a pity in your piece last night Jon Snow sort of spoiled the message the speakers were trying to get across when he made his comment at the end about the English monuments in Trafalgar Square. Thought it was Great Britain that fought the French – Scots, Welsh, Ireland and England.

    Clearly not quite getting the message or understanding what is happening in Scotland.

  11. Boffy says:

    “Just about Nightmail: where is the poetry in that journey now? The trains are run by Virgin (offshore owned) and the soon-to-be-sold-off East Coast company. The Royal Mail has been sold off. Mail is now also delivered by TNT (headquarters where?). In this sense, of a shared country, with shared national services, Britain is over.”

    Isn’t that the whole point about scrapping borders here? If the whole debate is only about not erecting a border between Scotland and rUK, this seems to miss the point that we should also be in favour of scrapping the borders between the UK and the rest of Europe at the very least, as a start! If you want to scrap borders why does it matter that the railways, mail etc. are owned by foreign capitalists rather than “British” capitalists?

    The real issue here is not whether they are owned by foreigners, but the fact that they are owned by capitalists (including in the past the capitalist state) and exploited workers to make profits.

    The position of UKIP as well as Cameron and the Tories, but also in most part Miliband and co. is that they want to oppose in internationalist terms the erecting of a border with Scotland, but want to maintain the border with Europe, rather than pressing ahead with the rational solution of a single United States of Europe. The the issue of lines on maps between England and Scotland, Catalunya and the rest of Spain etc. would become meaningless. No more significant than whether Little Sodbury is in the bounds of Council A or Council B.

    1. Robin Kinross says:

      “If you want to scrap borders why does it matter that the railways, mail etc. are owned by foreign capitalists rather than “British” capitalists?”

      The main point I’m making is that the postal services (for all of their time, until this year) and the trains (from the 1940s to the 1990s) were owned by the British state. If Britain sells those services to anyone else, then Britain – the idea of Britain and its meaning – loses something.

      The borders thing is a red herring, I believe. There is a border between England and Scotland already. There is a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland now. There is a border between Belgium and the Netherlands now. One can walk through all of them without bother.

  12. Josie says:

    @Tim Page
    I went to Trafalgar Square. I had no idea Geldof was going to speak, and in normal circumstances I wouldn’t contemplate a 2 hour train journey to hear either Izzard or Snow speak.
    But I was moved to go there because I don’t get a vote and with my half Scots background, I was excited by the event as an opportunity to demonstrate my feelings about the referendum.
    For me, the line that has oscillated either side of Berwick Upon tweed for the last 300 years is a unnatural, divisive, man made border drawn between people who are all sick of Westminster and the way the UK is run.
    Our natural border is the sea, and all of us on this little island would do better to put all our energies into righting some of the wrongs that have been visited on many of us rather than spending the next decade retreating into our enclaves while separation is negotiated.

  13. Anti Matter David Cameron says:

    Bob and Mr Izzard, bless them but right or wrong a huge chunk of the population will never take them seriously for anything other than sideshow activities unless they comb their hair and take the nail polish off, I am not saying that is the way it should be by the way, it is however the way it is and if you want change you have to deal in and balance political reality with vision.

    Somehow we are programmed into assuming suitable gravitas for grand governance and opinion only comes in a suit and tie, has no sense of humour and is married to a member of the opposite sex for at least 15 years. Personally I prefer the bob and Eddies school of thought and free self confident behaviour generally, but will it ever translate into real political influence and votes……

    It would be good, but the pragmatist in me just can’t see it and therefore it goes in the ‘what was the point of that’ basket.

  14. Boffy says:

    “The main point I’m making is that the postal services (for all of their time, until this year) and the trains (from the 1940s to the 1990s) were owned by the British state. If Britain sells those services to anyone else, then Britain – the idea of Britain and its meaning – loses something. ”

    That assumes there is something called Britain, rather than there being workers and capitalists with divergent interests. I have no more interest in “retaining its meaning” in that way than I have in Scotland or England or any other entity contained in such borders retaining its meaning.

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