Wednesday 23 December 2020

The fading of the myth


Statistics tell us that around 8% of the UK’s population are 75 or over, meaning that the remaining 92% were all born in or after 1945. Unless my understanding of the age profile of users of social media is seriously wrong, it is reasonable to conclude that the proportion of those users who have direct experience or memory of the second world war is a number which approximates very closely to zero. This apparently makes a proportion very much higher than zero particularly well-qualified to assert that ‘we’ not only survived the war, but ‘we’ single-handedly won it, either sorting out or liberating (depending on which nationality they are referring to at the time) all those pesky Europeans, who now owe us a whole bunch of favours, but whose favours we can easily survive without if they insist on pursuing their own interests rather than recognising ‘our’ sacrifices on their behalf.

The Anglo-British emphasis on ‘the war’ is understandable. In many ways, it is reasonable to argue that what we know as the UK was ‘born’ out of the Second World War. It was the British Empire, not the UK, which declared war on Germany in 1939, but it was a much-diminished UK which emerged from the war and its aftermath. What looked very much like a victory to those who were there at the time turns out to have been merely the beginning of the end, as another of the world’s historic empires disintegrated and declined, as they all do eventually. What lives on in the collective memory is more myth than fact. The UK is not alone in clinging to myth; many countries have a creation myth about how they came into existence as a way of promoting unity and shared beliefs. Myth, however, is absolutely the right word to use. Some countries’ creation myths are more believable than others, but they are all, ultimately, more about myth than fact. The strongest are those which everyone knows to be myth; fantasies based on tales of dragons, giants or gods are more powerful than creation myths which turn around actual events, because events can (and always will be) re-interpreted, misremembered, or even forgotten as time passes.

In the case of the UK, the misremembering takes many forms. Where historical fact shows black marketeers and spivs enriching themselves at the expense of the many, the myth tells us about social solidarity and stoicism. Where fact talks of food shortages and rationing for the many whilst the few had access to all they needed, myth tells of a great levelling, in which all had their basic needs met. Fact talks of hunger; myth reports a lack of any obesity problem. Historical fact tells of the huge military contribution of the US and the USSR, the latter suffering horrific numbers of deaths during the conflict, but the myth talks of brave and exceptional little Blighty, standing all alone against the menace of Hitler.

Dragons and giants can survive historical revisionism in a way that the UK’s creation myth could never do; sooner or later, the myth was going to come up against reality. If it weren’t Brexit, it would be something else. Ultimately, there can only be one winner of the contest: the myth is dying. It’s a long-drawn-out death, and the death throes are marked by ever more extreme protestations, but the conclusion is inevitable. Just as the UK was born out of the myth, so it will also die with the myth. It falls to the current generation to ensure that the new states which emerge from the ashes are founded on more solid grounds – new creation myths? – than a belief in exceptionalism and superiority.


dafis said...

That myth about Britain ( Great, greater , greatest ?)remains deep seated in the collective psyche of those who see enemies from "elsewhere" or from "within". These enemies are consistently, persistently trying to do "us" down. Currently likes of Macron, VdL, the Hausfrau, and sundry other EU types are to the forefront of the list of hostiles who just don't get the context and content(mythical) that justifies exceptionalism. A long cold bath beckons but won't serve any purpose until the people of UK who cling on to these perverse notions ditch them. My suspicion is that many will not until they too are buried and forgotten.

Jonathan said...

You are right about the myth, and the end of the story. I think it comes about because the British have lost the habit of action, preferring the effort-free process of posturing and dreaming.
You then speculate that "the new states which emerge from the ashes are founded on more solid grounds" which sounds strong. But you weaken the point by asking "– new creation myths?" which is an unanswered question and reveals uncertainty. And may fall into the trap of seeming to accept that new states do regularly emerge by finding new creation myths.
But there is a difference between dreaming and action. New states normally emerge by
(1) bold action taken by nation-builders with the practical knowledge of how to create a nation, and
(2) holding a Constitutional Convention, the results of which are ratified. Which also takes boldness and knowledge.
Yes, when you have been bold and applied your knowledge, no doubt a myth will arise to confirm it all. But myth making does not a nation make.

John Dixon said...


I think that's just sloppy wording on my part! I didn't intend to suggest that the myth would be the "more solid grounds", rather that the more solid grounds would lead to a new creation myth, although I now see how it can be read differently. If I had written "leading to new creation myths?" it would have better reflected my intention.