Andrew Marr’s New Elizabethans is an interesting take on Elizabeth II’s reign as told through the stories of people who had a hand in it; a sort of riposte to The Crown I guess. He doesn’t just choose the obvious characters, though there are a few of those, but the less obvious, the hidden, the unknown and the forgotten. In this series Jayaben Desai, the leader of the Grunwick strike, sits alongside Mountbatten the enigmatic and ‘Mad Max’ Mitchell the rogue soldier who tried to re-establish empire with a handful of soldiers. This week’s episode covers the transition from empire to commonwealth and our uneasy relationship with Europe; I’d forgotten, for example, that there was a previous referendum on EU membership, this time with most establishment figures voting to remain. In this debate Enoch Powell and Tony Benn were on the same side, though opposed in just about every other way: Powell is now remembered for little more than his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech which incited racism much in the way Trump does today; though thankfully Powell was not Prime Minister.
What’s fascinating for me is not only to relive parts of my youth but to see how patterns emerge and repeat over the decades. We were never fully committed to the European project and only really dipped one toe in the water at the best of times; and it occurs to me to wonder how much of our history is really geography. We’re fond of congratulating ourselves on never being invaded but put us geographically in the position of Poland and we’d have been overrun time and again. And our reluctance to join Europe is surely down to geography too, as well as our mistrust of foreigners.
The asymmetry of attitudes towards immigration never ceases to amaze me: from the 1970’s onwards people from the former colonies began to settle here, either because they were invited or because they were thrown out or otherwise displaced. As Marr remarks in the programme: ‘they were here because we were there’ – they regarded Britain as the mother country. Why? Because several hundred years ago we colonised their countries and ran them largely for our own benefit. We did not ask permission to land; we did not fill out immigration papers or stand in a queue or plead our cause before the courts, we marched in there and took the land for our own. Yet those very people who laud this process often deplore the levels of immigration we have here. What is the difference between an immigrant and a coloniser? Power. What’s the difference between an immigrant and an expat? Money. Money legitimises that process and it’s all too often those who have emigrated to the Costa del Sol where they live in a little enclave and don’t bother to learn the language – who are the most prejudiced. Look at John Cleese: comic genius, yes, but not a nice man.
Nor am I immune from this; having settled in Spain, after I’d been there a year or two I began to feel threatened by ‘all the new English people’ coming in. It’s a natural fear. But we should not give it house room.
Bit of a rant this morning. Don’t know why I put the title either, I just liked the sound of it.
Have a good day and try not to worry.