I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age last night, a rare night out from the toddlers. Cate Blanchett is extraordinary and clearly the days of the film epic have returned. I enjoyed it, but kept my fingers crossed.
I happened to hear a radio report just before about Gordon Brown’s attempt – abortive so far – to come up with a ‘motto’ for Britain. This is an interesting, but probably doomed idea, to somehow distil the meaning of what has always been a massively diverse nation.
New Labour has no sense of history whatsoever. As arch-modernists, they don’t see the point, and consequently find themselves repeating history (usually as farce) all over the world. Any motto stitched together by marketers without a sense of history is liable to be as vacuous as, say, Newport City Council’s mission statement (the usual bollocks about 'excellence').
With a sense of history, you can’t help feeling that they ought to come up with something related to Elizabeth’s speech in the film to her council about the Armada: “They carry within their bowels the Inquisition; God forbid they should land on these shores…”
This mythos may not be fair or rational or modern, or even accurate, but there is an extraordinary paradox that runs through English history – and it is English history we’re talking about here. On the one hand, there is this constant, ill-prepared standing alone against continental tyranny. On the other, it is always an immigrant, polyglot England that fights the battle.
It is, in short, a Liberal thread that runs through our history, though one with a Whiggish tinge which constantly threatens to collapse into an xenophobic little England that is not Liberal at all.
So driving back from the film, I wondered whether we were destined to repeat this pattern again. Whether at some point, in the not-too-distant future, after the slow impoverishment of the United States, we will withdraw from the international financial tentacles that are sucking what remains of our institutions dry, and stand alone again, with only our own resources to fall back on, and those of all the nationalities that shelter with us.
That is unlikely to be a Liberal future either, and lodged in a profoundly illiberal world. Perhaps we ought to start discussing more directly how to avoid it.