Mythmaking: poster for an 1895 play that combines Magna Carta and the Robin Hood story

Making a miserable meal of mythbusting

The writing is laced with the sins of myth-making: boring, trite, incoherent, lazy and unfunny


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Should Keir Starmer find himself in Downing Street after the next election, he will have little to play with in terms of zeitgeist. Unlike Blair, there is no Cool Britannia to tap into. There are few unifying cultural figures and despair seems the only discernible national mood. Starmer has only the recent success of the Lionesses and an oft-quoted anecdote about his dad being a toolmaker to inspire the nation. 

England: Seven Myths That Changed a Country — and How to Set Them Straight, Tom Baldwin and Marc Stears (Bloomsbury, £22)

But there is one nation-renewing narrative on the centre-left that has emerged since 2016. England, unlike the rest of Europe, is a parochial country doomed to nostalgia and irrelevance by its unwavering belief in a series of grandiose historical myths. The real 21st century England is being held back by people singing “Rule Britannia” at the Last Night of the Proms and the fantasies of Daniel Hannan. 

In England: Seven Myths That Changed a Country, Starmer’s biographer Tom Baldwin and former Labour Party speechwriter Mike Stears embark on a journey to set us free from such falsehoods. In Hull we find that William Wilberforce has given the nation an unqualified moral superiority. In Plymouth we discover that Sir Francis Drake is the inspiration for “the aggressively macho nationalist idea” that Brexit can “restore the country’s global reach”. In Runnymede we find that Magna Carta has given rise to the idea of an “Anglo-Saxon birthright sealed with the blood of dead kings”.

Whether anyone actually believes these things is beside the point. These national myths, the authors insist, can account for everything from the popularity of Michael Portillo’s railway documentaries to the 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

Journeys in search of England tend to lend themselves more to projection than discovery. This book presents the worst of that sin. Reading Seven Myths is a bit like being stuck on a very long car journey and regretting having asked the driver: “Whatever happened to the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics?” 

Unsurprisingly, much of what follows spouts repackaged Blairite clichés about football, curry and the NHS. Lingering behind their polemic is the tedious psychodrama of the Corbyn years and Labour infighting about how the party should allow itself to feel patriotic. This book is as much about two middle-aged Starmerites trying to work out what it is acceptable to like between their party, the electorate and the limited scope of their inquiry into the England of the 2020s. 

And the scope is indeed limited. Reportage and interview, where the book is allowed to breathe away from the grating polemic, is cramped, incomplete and tokenistic. The most memorable soundbite is from Nigel Farage, who tells them — perhaps half-mockingly — that his favourite place in England is London: “It gets faster and more trendy every year that comes.” 

Interactions with the public are even more painful. “What do you think of Enoch Powell?” one “brown-skinned man” is asked in Wolverhampton. A refugee from Hong Kong is asked “Does Magna Carta mean anything to you?” Unsurprisingly these conversations don’t return much, but they pave the way for the eye-rollingly mundane conclusion that when it comes to English identity there is “complexity everywhere” (as if anyone’s sense of national identity were ever simple).

For a book that spends nearly 400 pages debunking myths and trying to correct the course of English history, its sources require a lot of reading between the lines. Many can be narrowed down to soundbites from a few politicians and forgotten op-eds in the Telegraph (one quoted is dated as far back as 2004).

Zulu (1964)

All this generates endless false dichotomies, strawmen and reductive statements to account for a grander myth loosely referred to as “English exceptionalism”. At times, attempts to source these myths in the body politic come across as comically desperate. Zulu (1964) becomes a film which kept alive the “British Empire myth and which “the current generation of politicians would have watched growing up”. 

Ironically, the writing itself is laced with the sins of myth-making: boring, trite, incoherent, lazy and unfunny. At times it veers into self-parody. In Runnymede, the “high iron gates” of a housing development near the Magna Carta memorial serve to remind us that national identity myths can “make others feel excluded”. In Plymouth, Greta Thunberg is placed in a pantheon alongside Darwin and Drake who both set sail from the Devon port: “None of these dead Englishmen have as much relevance right now as [the voyage] undertaken from the same city by a Swedish Girl.” 

But such polemical licence runs into trouble when the authors feel free to use it to speak for others. Refugees from Hong Kong, the authors insist, have chosen to live outside cities in part to avoid “the dead eyes of white racists with twisted notions of what it is to be English”. But the note provided links to an Economist article in which no such sentiment is expressed. The only reference to a big English city is Birmingham, which is described as “crime-ridden”. 

At times this brash myth-busting narrative runs the risk of untethering itself entirely from the reality of Britain in 2024. In Plymouth (again) the authors tie themselves up in knots by trying to suggest that a Drake-inspired fantasy about ruling the waves is putting Britain at odds with its new relationship with wind and sea.

But Britain, as they acknowledge, is one of the world’s biggest investors in offshore wind energy whilst the Conservatives have once again fallen below their 2.5 per cent target for defence spending. At the start of January, the Royal Navy was unable to deploy any of its carriers to the Red Sea because of an ongoing recruitment crisis. 

Throughout the book there is almost no interest in the widening gap between what Tory politicians say and what they actually do. In fact, Baldwin and Stears might be the last people in Britain who still take the rhetoric of the Conservative Party seriously. 

In Another England, Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Green Party, is also on a mission to save the English from their myths. Brexit, she insists, played on ideas of the Spanish Armada and Dunkirk. But unlike Stears and Baldwin, she goes a step further and argues that our past holds a sort of atavistic aura over the English that can be utilised. “If progressives can get over their squeamishness, they may find another, more inclusive Englishness there for the taking,” she writes. 

Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story, Caroline Lucas (Penguin, £16.99)

Yet the “pushed aside” events and voices she demands to be celebrated are largely already embedded in our culture, politics and institutions. The Peasants’ Revolt, Chartists, Peterloo and the suffragettes were taught in schools long before she became an MP. Since the death of George Floyd in 2020, nearly every public institution has assiduously worked at what she terms the need to “finally address the legacies of Empire”.

There is a nice, if somewhat vague idea about the country’s “diverse literary heritage” becoming a stand-in for our national story. Donne, Blake and others are woven into a defence of English localism and stewardship of the environment that seems to place her closer to Roger Scruton than Roger Hallam. But much of this writing seems to serve the goal of warding off the bogeyman of unchecked English nationalism. This gives Lucas’ historical and literary analysis the plodding moralism of a well-meaning but slightly dull primary school teacher. 

When reading both books it is impossible to escape the idea that they are continually experimenting with their own long-running myth — one that has been in existence since 2000, when in The Day Britain Died Andrew Marr hinted at an England teetering on an existential crisis and in need of an alternative story. 

The two threats that provoked this search still preoccupy Lucas, Baldwin and Steers: the break-up of the United Kingdom and the subsequent danger of an undefined English nationalism. As Aris Roussinos has pointed out, the latter is something that largely only obsesses the paranoid fever dreams of Westminster’s centre-left think tanks and panels. 

This search is now in its second decade and is evidently an exhausted, hackneyed genre. The perverse irony is that in trying to replicate the overstated power of a myth-driven English nationalism in their own political projects, the authors of these books resort to clichéd and artificial touchpoints that only evoke the flattened boredom of England in the 21st century. 

After all, a country is surely more than football teams, corporate language about inclusiveness and diversity and the everyday ordinariness of people living their day-to-day lives. In loosening the hold of such myths, Baldwin and Stears hope to break through what they call “ordinary hope” — something that sounds more like a charity for terminally-ill children rather than a national story. 

As the Conservatives have learnt after 14 years, politics is more than just stories and speeches. It’s also about governing. 

For those who really believe in the power of such myths, the maelstrom of actual political office will serve to break the illusion of their dominance and reveal their true nostalgic appeal. Soon the convenience of pretending the country is dictated by such outlandish stories will be over. 

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