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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