Jeremy Paxman: The English, A Portrait of a people (Beginning of chapter 8)

On the eve of St George's Day 1993, the then British Prime Minister, John Major, had a tricky speech to deliver. He needed to convince his party they could trust him to defend the country when negotiating with the European Union. Party discipline was already badly fraying, as an increasingly voluble right-wing caucus refused to accept his assurances. The issue of Britain's relations with the rest of Europe split the party from the top of the cabinet to the humblest constituency association, with opinion getting increasingly 'anti-Europe' the further you got towards the party's grassroots. Within four years, the parliamentary party would be in more or less open warfare on the subject, squabbling among themselves as the Conservative government spiralled out of the sky to electoral oblivion in May 1997.

Major could sense all this. His own attitude to Europe suffered by comparison with his right-wing critics, with their easy and scary slogans, because it was essentially pragmatic, with little clear ideology. His beliefs, in the sovereignty of nation states and the importance of free trade, were no different from those of most of his party. But he was not prepared to demonize the rest of the European Union, most of whose leaders he knew and respected. What was he to do? This most English of men was a decent chap who ought to have had an instinctive understanding of the worries of 'his' people. But he had been trapped in the narrow world of Westminster politics for years. And he had few rhetorical skills; a reporter who had seen him mount his soapbox during the 1992 election campaign had described him as sounding, when he tried to declaim, like some 'angry nerd in Woolworth's returning a faulty toaster'.

Much of the speech could write itself. There would be a recital of the government's achievements, the usual credit-taking that is the small change of political opportunism. There would be a lot of nonsense about the government's determination to be 'at the heart of Europe' when so much of its own behaviour made it seem less like a heart and more like an appendix. There would be claims that nothing in Britain's involvement in Europe endangered the country's sovereignty. There would be the blunt suggestion that, frankly, the country had no alternative. But he needed a peroration to end with and an image of Britain's security to leave with his audience. What emerged was an extraordinary word portrait. 'Fifty years from now,' he said, '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 cycling to holy communion through the morning mist".'

Where on earth did all this stuff come from? Which corner of England was the Prime Minister talking about where life proceeded in this quaint, prelapsarian way? The last time we heard a Prime Minister wax lyrical about an England of smiling milkmaids and warm beer was in the 1920s. Stanley Baldwin claimed to speak 'not as a man in the street, but as a man in the field-path, a much simpler person steeped in tradition and impervious to new ideas'. (At the time he was chosen to lead the Conservative party in 1923 Baldwin claimed to have been preparing to return home to Worcestershire where he said he would 'lead a decent life and keep pigs'.) Despite having a Scottish grandfather and a Welsh grandmother, Baldwin presented himself as a thoroughbred Englishman. With what metropolitan snobs considered to be a studied sub-urbanity of cherrywood pipe and tweed suit, his appeal to the people was that of a stolid, God-fearing yeoman (another sleight of hand: he was a third-generation ironmaster who never owned more than a handful of acres within sight of the family forge).

To me, England is the country, and the country is England [Baldwin said in a characteristic speech], And when I ask myself what I mean by England, when I think of England when I am abroad, England comes to me through my various senses - through the ear, through the eye and through certain imperishable scents . . . The sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been England since England was a land . . . the one eternal sight of England.

It was pure fantasy. There was absolutely nothing eternal about any of these sights or sounds. The scythe was already being replaced by harvesting machines, and as the internal combustion engine moved in, the blacksmith was reduced to making shoes for the ponies of the children of the businessmen who were buying up the cottages of farmworkers driven from the land. By the time of this speech, England had been a predominantly urban society for seventy years. The vast majority could no more have recognized the rerrk-rerrk call of a corncrake than they could have parsed Sanskrit. By the time John Major stood up to deliver his Baldwinesque speech seventy years later, the corncrake appeared in England only as an occasional summer visitor — its breeding habitat had been destroyed by intensive farming. Major had modified the idyll a little, to draw in suburbs as well as countryside. But they are 'green suburbs', the comfortable places which exist as a refuge from the city.

The speech was manna from heaven for the satirists, who seized with metropolitan disdain on the antediluvian imagery as another sign of the Prime Minister's fading hold on reality. When I asked John Major why on earth he had chosen these sub-Baldwin metaphors, the memory was clearly still painful three years later. He felt he had been misunderstood (characteristically he added, 'my fault, perhaps'). As he saw it, he had 'quoted some poetry' about 'warm beer and English maids cycling to communion', 'to illustrate that the essential characteristics of our country would never be lost by a deepening relationship with the European Union. The intended message was, to put it bluntly: the French and Germans will not take over, as so many people fear!'

The fiction must be maintained that political leaders write their own speeches (although Major's belief that he had 'quoted some poetry' gives the game away). But the truth is that, for all the lampooning, it worked. John Major's audience did recognize the picture of England he painted. Why?

Something remarkable has happened to the English perception of the land in which they live. Major was like the man at the top of a well lowering a bucket to snatch up water. In the collective unconscious from which John Major drew his pictures, there exists another England. It is not the country in which the English actually live, but the place they imagine they are living in. It touches the reality they see around them at various points, but it is something ideal, like the 'other country' of Spring-Rice's patriotic hymn: 'her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace'. What has happened is that the English have become exiles from their own country. Their relationship with this arcadia is that of some emotional remittance-man.

The picture of England that the English carry in their collective mind is so astonishingly powerful because it is a sort of haven. The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that romantic ruralism was connected with imperial exile, a refuge conjured up in the longing for home of a chap stuck deep in the bush, serving his queen:

Its green peace contrasted with the tropical or arid places of actual work; its sense of belonging, of community, idealized by contrast with the tensions of colonial rule and the isolated alien settlement. The birds and trees and rivers of England; the natives speaking, more or less, one's own language: these were the terms of many imagined and actual settlements. The country, now, was a place to retire to.

By the time of John Major's Speech, the same idea could be applied not merely to the overseas victims of the English Tourist Board's propaganda, but to millions of native English people living their lives in the suburbs and dreaming of a return one day to the Land of Lost Content.

The idea becomes strongest when times are most stressful. In World War One, soldiers were despatched to the Front by the trainload from industrial cities and towns around Britain. Their loved ones sent them postcards showing churches, fields and gardens, above all, villages. 'This', the unstated message went, 'is what you are fighting for.' The protection of this arcadian 'home' was invested with a greater nobility than any amount of flag-waving. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose immensely popular anthology The Oxford Book of English Verse was in many a kitbag on the Western Front, claimed that English patriotism drew on the spirit of Merrie England. It was not, he said, the English way, to throw back 'Rule Britannia' at 'Deutschland über alles'. Blithely ignoring the fact that, for most Englishmen, the countryside was a place from which their ancestors had escaped and of which they had only the haziest knowledge, 'Q' claimed that the private soldier in the trenches looked to 'a green nook of his youth in Yorkshire or Derbyshire, Shropshire or Kent or Devon; where the folk are slow, but there is seed time and harvest'. There was more in a similar vein from the editor of the 1917 YMCA anthology produced for soldiers, The Old Country: A Book of Love and Praise of England (how characteristic that it is England, not Britain), who believed that from his trench the soldier, 'in imagination, can see his village home'……..[to be continued, W.E.P.]