“Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school.” ~ John Major Speech at Conservative Party Conference 1993
Visions of the future as an eternal version of the past never wear well, especially in a period of late capitalism defined by the maxim “move fast and break things.” As Karl Marx remarked when capitalism was taking off beyond its North European cradle All that is solid, melts into air.
Thirty years on and some of Majors eternal bucolic vision is already looking a bit far gone.
- Thanks to Major himself, the Football Pools were overwhelmed by the National Lottery that he introduced and were pretty much dead by the time he was turfed out of office just four years later.
- There may still be some long shadows on county cricket grounds, but a lot more attention is paid to 20:20 and even when Major was speaking, cricket as such had long been supplanted by Football as a totemic national sport. A visions of crowds of the hoi polloi chanting obscene -if original – songs on terraces, while munching on meat pies and drinking Bovril, conjures an image of a different kind of country than that of chaps in whites languidly striking leather with willow in arcadian surroundings. Whish poses a question beyond “who do you think you are?”, which is “WHERE do you think you are?”
- “Warm beer”? Although there are still around 40,000 pubs in the UK, they are currently closing at a rate of 50 a month, or 600 a year. At that rate, the last “Last Orders” would be called some time in 2088.
- In a country now turning its back on formal Christianity at an increasing rate, “Old Maids” (ouch) cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” – which, for me, conjures up an image of Margaret Rutherford playing Miss Marple – are a rare sight. Major might not have understood that many of the single women Orwell was referring to were bereaved by the mass slaughter of young men in the First World War, which left a legacy of many single women in one generation and a deep reluctance to suffer such extreme loses ever again. You could still see this in an odd sort of way as late as the first years of this century in the ceremonial welcomes given by rows of silent people to the coffins of dead soldiers flown back from Afghanistan and Iraq being driven through Wootton Bassett during Blair’s auxiliary role in the opening stage of the Wars for the New American Century. Respect, but there’s a limit…
- That phrase “Shakespeare still read even in school” indicates both the Tory suspicion of teachers as dubiously progressive thinking people who can’t be trusted with “the national heritage” as they want us all to imagine it, but also how poorly he understood just how subversive Shakespeare can be. Shakespeare will be read and watched and performed because he was a brilliant, funny, moving poet of a playwright who asks hard questions about power and humanity even in the midst of a seeming puff to mindless patriotism. The opening of Henry V, which for people on the right and far right is nothing more than a mash up of “once more unto the breach” and “we happy few” and sticking it to the French with arrows at Agincourt, is of a cabal of cynical Archbishops faking up a “legitimate claim” to the French throne to sell to the new young King; to divert his attention from helping himself to their land holdings. The version of this I saw at the Globe a few years ago had the discussion taking place with the plump, crimson clad prelates sitting on portable toilets, just to underline the point. I think the Tories like the heritage, but may not watch the plays themselves much.
- As for the Conservative Party itself, it is now looking as endangered as it ever has and could well not exist in its present form by the time Major’s 50 years are up (2043). “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished” (Hamlet) or as Richard II put it, talking of his dying uncle, John of Gaunt, “Pray God we may make haste…and come too late”.
For the “invincible green suburbs” – see part 2.