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Andrew Marr on Elizabethans and the State of the Nation

Posted on 28th September 2020 by Anna Orhanen

Journalist, broadcaster and the bestselling author of The History of Modern Britain and The Making of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr is one of the most popular and insightful commentators on the recent history of the British Isles. His new book Elizabethans explores the prominent figures who have shaped British society and culture since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, painting a vivid portrait of a nation in transformation.

In this exclusive piece, Marr discusses the process of writing Elizabethans, and why understanding the nation's recent past is an integral part of forging a better future.

We seem, this winter, to be gripped on all sides by spiky and difficult challenges emerging from our history. Was the British Empire a thoroughly racist project, about which modern citizens have shamefully failed to educate themselves? Are the social arguments about transgender and queer rights as new as they seem? Does our decision to leave the European Union inevitably threaten those older Unions between England, Scotland and Ireland which made up the UK? When Boris Johnson argues that Britain has always been more ‘freedom loving’ than other democracies, is it really the case that the British have been naturally stroppier and more resistant to official diktat, than other nations? Jab. Jab. Jab.

Many people fear that the 2020s, already bleakly overshadowed by coronavirus, will be a decade of unprecedented fracture and dislocation for the British Isles. Maybe so. But if there is one lesson I’ve learned in more than 30 years of writing books, it’s that uncomfortable historical challenges are met most effectively with more history, not less – by looking harder, not by looking away. On the streets we may be toppling statues. But the job of resurrecting reputations matters more.

The idea behind Elizabethans was to write a draft history of how our attitudes have changed during the reign of the current Queen. She has been there since 1952, not so far off a sixty- years-and-ten lifetime, so this is a portrait of today’s British. It struck me that if somehow one could take a representative platoon from today and time-transport us back to the beginning of the reign, the conversation with our earlier selves would be dominated less by the outer things such as clothing and technology, and more by the extraordinary shifts inside our heads – our attitudes to nation, class, hierarchy, gender, sexuality, the natural world and work. 

These changes have been led (and opposed) by individuals, either through their own life struggles, or because of their ability to lead us and shape the intellectual landscape. So Elizabethans, as the title suggests, is a mosaic of essential character portraits. It includes famous and controversial figures, from Lord Louis Mountbatten, Ted Hughes and Mary Whitehouse, to lesser-known people such as Vladimir Raitz, effectively the inventor of mass overseas tourism, Jayaben Desai, leader of the epic Grunwick dispute, and the Rev Marcus Morris, inventor of Dan Dare. As with my earlier histories, there are politicians present but this time, they are rarely prime ministers. For instance, when we think back to the Brexit referendum, it is the leaders of the anti-Brussels movement earlier on, from left and right, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, who turn out to have been particularly influential in 2016.

But I’m keen to emphasise that conventional politics only reaches part of the way. In her cookery books and through the gusto of her writing, Elizabeth David had just as much of an influence on the growing British Europeanism of the 1970s as Edward Heath. And when it comes to influencing what voters find more or less important today, Justine Roberts, inventor of Mumsnet, is at least as potent and swaggering a figure as… well, any Cabinet Minister. 

So, from this jostling cavalcade of characters, you may ask, does any real sense of direction emerge? What can we learn? It seems to me that back in 1952, the British had two grand projects. The first was to create the world’s most generous and successful welfare society. This built on the foundation of the NHS and was, mostly, the project of the centre left. The second was to replace the collapsing empire with a potent new British global role; and that was, mostly the project of the centre right. In different ways, both of these projects failed. Why? Because during this period, for all our hard work and ingenuity, we failed as a country to earn enough to give us either the living or the power we thought we deserved.

But within that story, there is a lot to celebrate and a lot to give us confidence. The British contribution to the computer age, to modern technologies, to environmentalism and the more ethical capitalism is very easily underestimated. Social liberalism, cheek and even insolence spread; but so did a more moral and decent attitude to the planet, and to personal consumption. And if we bulk a little less in the world than during our post-war pomp, perhaps we are rather more clear-eyed and frank about ourselves.

Certainly, returning to recent history gives a better perspective on what’s happening now. To take a few examples: it simply isn’t the case that today’s gender politics is an alien invention, imported from US universities: Jan Morris, Quentin Crisp and Barbara Hosking were pioneers in the early years of the Queen’s reign. Anyone who thinks that Black Lives Matter is a concept invented in the last few years, needs to re-educate themselves in the story of Frank Crichlow and his colleagues in Notting Hill in the late 1960s. Similarly, if you know nothing about the story of Scottish nationalism over the past few decades, you are unlikely to understand the argument about to break over British politics today. Always, more history not less.

Not everybody in this book is a hero. The life of A.K. Chesterton, for instance, links the fascist marches of Moseley’s black shirts to the creation of modern neo-Nazi movements. Outside the far right, he is barely known today. But he has had an influence on modern Britain and the rest of us deserve to know about it. 

Sometimes, the influence is unwitting. Perhaps the most poignant story for me was the interlinked lives of Diana Dors and Ruth Ellis. They had remarkably similar backgrounds and upbringings, both pressing back hard against what was expected for young women of the 1950s. For them, that meant nude modelling, exploitation, a lot of drink and some seriously bad Svengalis. But, after they met on a film set, Dors would become the great British star of her day. She was able to outwit and outplay the men who thought they could control her – a kind of super-confident “It Girl” before her time – while Ruth Ellis, still protecting her male accomplice, went obediently to the gallows. Her death helped end capital punishment in Britain. But what was it, in the characters of Dors and Ellis, which led them to such very different ends?

To write this book, I researched the lives and views of three or four times as many people as finally made it in. I hope that part of the enjoyment will be readers expostulating: what, you didn’t put in X or Y but you saw fit to include dreary old Z? As with any book, of course I am hoping to start an argument. But I do want Elizabethans to be useful. In this worrying winter, I hope it will be a genial and good tempered debate, which helps us to think more clearly about the people we have become.

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