Opening a public concert to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, rock guitarist Brian May stood on the roof of Buckingham Palace and played “God Save the Queen”. It was a moment that confirmed something a wise and wily New Zealander had told me before I arrived here: the British have no sense of irony.
May’s solo alluded to Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival. A black man, drug-user and poster boy of psychedelia playing his nation’s beautiful anthem at the height of the Vietnam War. Hendrix’s solo was suffused with irony at its most elevated: a melancholy panegyric to the American idea and bitter ridicule of the hypocrisies of its realization. Brian May, big-haired guitarist from Queen, plays for a real queen -- a wink and a nod between rock and royalty -- and the guitar anthem spectacle is turned as grey as Britain’s weather and as cosy and comfy as slippers and a cardigan.
May’s nauseating, earnest sycophancy was one of those moments that connected the disjunct impressions, opinions and sentiments that make up one’s experience of living in Britain. Particularly for English-speakers, coming to Britain presents an array of clichés and familiar images suddenly rescaled into the minutiae of a continuous, lived experience. In that context, May’s anthem was a moment in which one could make sense of the distorted scale that comes from actually being here on the ground.
Brian May demonstrated that the British can’t be ironic. Irony needs a sense of exclusion, and of doubt. It isn’t sarcasm or cynicism, and certainly not that British style of pretend self-deprecation. Irony speaks from the margins to express the gap between easy received truths and uncomfortable reality. The British can’t be ironic because at the heart of the British imagination is a stone cold nugget of belief that Britain is not at the margins, but at the centre.
Britain for the British is an absolute, an unmoveable point of reference, with the rest of their imagined world orbiting around it. As such, the British lack the sense of distance from themselves that they need to be able to be ironic. It’s not just that they take themselves terribly seriously, which they do, or that they can be awful snobs, which they can, but as May captured perfectly, they are unable to look upon themselves from a step removed so as to see the gap between what they believe in and what they actually are.
Because, after all, what does Britain believe in? The ironic power of Jimi Hendrix came from his genuine belief in the American idea set against his disgust at its hypocrisy in modern America. Irony always holds on to the ideals of truth even as it plays with their debasement into pietisms and platitudes. But what was going through Brian May’s mind and heart as he played “God Save the Queen”?
The idea that, for the British, Britain is at the centre of the world is a variation on the familiar line that they are still stuck in the faded glory of their imperial past. But a more nuanced position is that the exhaustion of the empire has left a void which they seem unwilling to fill. Britain has been unable to advance a new national idea that fits the reality of its status as a small island nation, dwarfed in significance by the great nations of the world: China, the United States, Japan, and India. Instead, there is just a kind of emptiness, sometimes almost a despair and bitterness, that seeps through British life. Britain seems to echo like a hollow vessel.
It is common to hear people in Britain say “we invented football”, or cricket, or tennis or the railways. “We” and “us”, these pronouns which in Britain denote a fixed, indignant subjectivity that would be an impossibility in a colonial or post-colonial nation, followed by a lament, with what sounds like genuine regret, at how bad Britain has become at all of those things compared to Australians, Indians, or Americans.
Then there is the deep sense of impotence and anger that many Britons feel about supporting the United States in its projection of military power around the world. There is no convincingly-argued opposite position -- standing shoulder to shoulder with Iraqi troops in the forthcoming war? -- but also no willingness to accept a role at a level that matches Britain’s global status. The result is predictable: Britain is a “guiding hand”, the “voice of restraint and experience”. British journalists ask, in all seriousness, if George W. Bush really listens to Tony Blair, as if it is Britain that is able to exercise power over the United States, and not the other way around.
The imbalance in power gives America an especially strange place in the British imagination, producing a self-image that is sometimes so at variance with reality that one feels one is the last human alive here among alien body snatchers. The British condemn American militarism, while most public events in Britain are constructed out of elaborations of military exercise drills and the British Army’s SAS is a pop-cultural icon. And leftist Britons fulminate about the American military-industrial complex — yet Britain’s largest manufactured export industry is armaments. Those materialistic, gratification-seeking Americans are also irresponsibly consuming all the world’s resources, but thank goodness there are not two hundred and eighty million British householders, for they recycle less than half that of their American counterparts.
Australians? Of course, we are racist colonials, as evidenced by our immigration policy (“concentration camps in the desert”) -- while British police with body armour and machine guns break down the door of a mosque -- a mosque! -- to drag an Afghan family away for deportation. A terrifying act of state violence that was met with an indifferent shrug by British public opinion.
Part of the problem for Britain is that while it has not yet embraced the reality of its marginality, it still sits in a world that remains structured by the empire it once was. And the rest of the world still plays out the role of colonies and rivals within its non-existent imperial reach. This occurs on the island itself: Afro-Caribeans and South Asians are to be found in the non-speaking service jobs (cleaners, security guards); Australians, New Zealanders and white South Africans in the speaking ones (bartenders, waiters). And overseas: Argentina occupying the Falkland Islands was a disastrous moment that revived the most reactionary aspects of Britain’s imperial imagination. More recently, Robert Mugabe’s Britain-bashing is a low political strategy that prevents Zimbabwe from taking on the responsibility of building a modern and independent nation. But it also has the effect of trapping Britain into responding to imperial guilt, thus keeping alive the rituals of its imperial burdens.
Australians are especially culpable in our tendency to either take on or aggressively reject Britishness -- both of which maintain Britain's imperial relationship to us. At one extreme, I encountered a young Australian woman here who drew in a breath and told me with a bizarre kind of pride that while Sydney had good restaurants, the best restaurants were in London. At home, Prime Minister Howard’s warmth toward Britain is clear, while the Australian Labor Party is schizophrenic: it is nominally hostile, yet after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had visited South Asia to avert war over Kashmir, the Labor foreign affairs spokesman called on Alexander Downer do the same, to act like some cringingly embarrassing Jack Straw pantomime puppet. Downer had the good sense to stay at home.
So what is Britain to do? If it wants to find its proper, post-imperial place in the world it needs to become much more proactive in rejecting the colonial hangers-on and settling down just off the edge of Europe. It should grant Australia republican status whether we want it or not. It should join the European currency union. Tony Blair should say, “take a message”, the next time W. calls asking for a squadron of Tornadoes to send to the Middle East. The British would soon understand the relaxed enjoyment that comes from being a dozy backwater: the friendliness, easy social mobility and the quiet appreciation of life’s finer things. They could, if they set their sights high enough, become Europe’s answer to New Zealand. And instead of being shrill self-parody or haughty smugness, their humour would become wry and sharp and ironic.
This article first appeared in The Diplomat, October-November 2002