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Seven myths that changed a country

Session 8 - Tom Baldwin 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Tom Baldwin was invited to Offgrid this year, said Jeremy as he introduced him, on the recommendation of Alastair Campbell, who couldn’t come this year. When Tom took the stage, he said wanly: “I seem to have spent most of my career as the Poundshop Campbell.”

He apologised for “my dishevelled appearance, my scribbled notes and the lost look in my eyes”. Tom has just published two different books in six months (a biography of Keir Starmer and The Seven Myths that Changed a Country and How to Set Them Straight) and was getting ready to promote them when he was clobbered by the prospect of a general election. So he’s frazzled. But, he said, “in my best moments I believe that both these books have something to say about the future or our democracy”. 

The “seven myths” he took on with his “brilliant” co-author Marc Stears, he says, matter because “the stories we tell ourselves about our country matter”. And in a general election, “grandiose, engorged” ideas about national identity will be pitted against “an everyday, more ordinary idea of England that”, Tom said, “fits this country better”. 

For each of the myths he addressed, he travelled to a place in which that myth could said to be rooted. So there was “a muddy field in the Home Counties”, Runnymede. There was Plymouth, from where Britannia supposedly ruled the waves. There was Wolverhampton – the town where William Wilberforce was born (“how’s that myth of moral superiority working out for us?”) as well as where Enoch Powell served for 35 years as MP. There was the North Greenwich peninsula, home of the Millennium Dome (as was) and seat of a “myth of modernity” which said we could bypass our national history. There was Blackpool, to examine myths about the white working class. And Oxford, and Hull.

Tom said he was particularly focused not on Britain, here, but on England. Identifying as “English” rather than British was a prime indicator both of voting Brexit in 2016 and supporting Nigel Farage now. The myths he examines are English myths – and “it’s the politicisation of these myths that I’m really worried about”.

Politically, England isn’t a country. But there is an idea of England that remains “vibrant” in our imagination. The best loved and most lasting versions of it, Tom said, are the versions that concern themselves with ordinary people and their lives. The vision of J B Priestley or George Orwell or T S Eliot, of the Ian Dury who hymned “winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips, Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps”; or even the self-described young anarcho-communist Ash Sarkar, whose list of distinctively English achievements is one term long: “Crisp sandwiches”.

England becomes more problematic as a political project, Tom said. Those, for instance, who boast of how we have “resisted invasion” for 1000 years; while ignoring that Wales, Scotland and Ireland were all constantly being invaded… by the English. Or that the coins all still have Elizabeth II’s face on them; even though Scotland never had an Elizabeth I. 

The first decade of the 21st century saw these ideas crumble. Devolution removed power from England, we saw the importance of Commonwealth unravelling amid globalisation, and the Special Relationship with the US fray. And then came Brexit, which brought out some of the most grandiose and delusional ideas about England.

By travelling to the book’s locations, Tom said, “each chapter is rooted in the everyday clutter of a real place because that is what matters. The best of England is found in what’s ordinary.” His and Marc Stears’s project was “to bring the myths gently back down to earth”. 

One of the biggest myths they sought to deflate was the idea that England “invented liberty – that we have nothing to learn from anyone else”. Hence, Runnymede, and the totemic importance of Magna Carta. That document is widely and flagrantly misunderstood: “It didn’t give ‘rights’ to anybody: it just gave privileges to a bunch of French-speaking aristocrats to do whatever they wanted”. The idea that it introduced habeas corpus (freedom from arrest) is anachronistic nonsense.

But that myth feeds into the current arguments over withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Opportunistic Tories rail against “foreign courts”, but as Tom points out “the European Convention has nothing to do with the European Union: it was created in the 1940s at the behest of Winston Churchill.

But “stories matter – Magna Carta matters – but the trouble is when it’s inflated and politicised”, he said, casting a withering glance at works by Dominic Raab and Daniel Hannan (of the “ridiculously titled” How We Invented Liberty and Why it Matters). He added that when David Cameron made much of the anniversary of Magna Carta – erecting a new memorial at Runnymede where there hadn’t been one before — he was “playing around with Eurosceptic erogenous zones”. 

Tom visited Runnymede as a reporter around that anniversary and when he tried to ask members of the public about what they thought of its historic significance, “we were at complete cross purposes”. They were just there walking their dogs. He found that encouraging: “Suburban England, with its rhododendron bushes, is reassuringly boring. It’s dowdy. And that dowdiness – being able to take freedom so much for granted – is the best definition I can think of of being free.”

It was a similar story in Wolverhampton, a hugely ethnically diverse city where Enoch Powell’s prophecy of rivers of blood did not come to pass. In the 1970s, football supporters went to games with pillowcases on their heads to resemble the Ku Klux Klan and Sikh children would hide in the temple on match days. But now the club is filled with Punjabi fans and they serve ethnic food on match days: “this isn’t some drippy liberal outpost: this is football!” And when Tom visited that Sikh Temple, what did they want to talk about? Not race relations or integration: but planning permission for a new car park. “We’re making progress as a country.”

And that brought Tom back to the general election. If you want a symbol of progress in this country, he said, you can look to Rishi Sunak. He doesn’t share Sunak’s politics, but he thought Nigel Farage’s dogwhistling claim that Sunak isn’t patriotic and “doesn’t understand our culture” deserve our contempt. To adapt Samuel Johnson, he said. “the last refuge of a scoundrel is questioning someone else’s patriotism”.

And so to his biographical subject, Sir Keir Starmer – who Tom admitted “to a lot of people … still a fantastically opaque figure”. He seems boring. (Tom said he knew eve nlawyers who had tried to read Starmer’s book on human rights law and had struggled: “eyes bleeding, matted hair, still on page 64”.) But maybe that’s one of his virtues.  

Sir Keir, he says, doesn’t represent some big idea, but a set of values. When Sir Keir made a speech about patriotism on St George’s Day – often something those on the Left feel uncomfortable with – he talked about the moments he had felt proud to be British. And what united those moments was that they were “everyday ordinary experiences” that could have had equivalents in many other countries: “he wasn’t claiming exceptionalism”.

So Sir Keir’s patriotism is “very prosaic, very everyday”: “At times, I don’t think he’s very political at all – he doesn’t like politics very much.” But the offer, then is exactly that – a “muddled set of values, with loose ends and exceptions” — but one representing a life-sized politics that “treads lightly on all of us”, that will “fit into the folds” of our national identity rather than seeking to “drive a straight line through it”. 

Key Takeaways

  1. The stories we tell about national identity are important – but they need to be life-sized

  1. Enoch was wrong

  1. Don’t rely on Magna Carta if you get arrested – unless you’re a French-speaking aristocrat