There is little about our current dilemmas that our parents and grandparents have not already confronted and survived
It still comes as a shock to hear oneself—ourselves—described as “Elizabethans”. But that, of course, is the correct name for the four out of five UK citizens who have been born since Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952. It was then that the 25-year-old girl queen—“just a child”, sniffed the prime minister Winston Churchill dismissively—inherited a country that was still picking bits of shrapnel out of its hair and dealing with the rationing of such treasured staples as sugar, eggs and tea. As for how she will leave it—that chapter has still to be written. But in a rousing finale to this terrific book Andrew Marr suggests that, as we look forward to the reigns of King Charles and King William, there is much we can learn from the early Elizabethans. There is little about our current dilemmas—the gap in life expectations between rich and poor, the terror of incipient environmental catastrophe, the threat of global war—that our parents and grandparents have not already confronted and survived.
Marr is, of course, a journalist rather than a professional historian, and his approach involves using the life stories of key individuals to illuminate the intimate textures of the past. So, rather than sketch an account of the growing liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1960s, he focuses on Roy Jenkins, the robustly heterosexual Home Secretary who had an affair with the future Foreign Secretary Tony
Crosland while the two were at Oxford in the late 1930s. Likewise, the anti-nuclear weapons movement is told through the story of Helen John, a shy Welsh midwife who started the women’s camp at Greenham Common in 1981 and lost her marriage and family in the process.
That doesn’t mean that Marr is satisfied with simply stringing together a series of second-hand biographical anecdotes. There’s evidence everywhere of original angles and fresh thinking. In the chapter on Mary Whitehouse he avoids falling into cheap condescension about the Nuneaton primary school teacher with the cats-eye glasses who insisted on seeing “filth” everywhere in the permissive 1970s. Not only does Marr remind us just what an effective tactician and public speaker Whitehouse was, he points out that she identified certain social blights long before the liberal metropolitan elite scented danger. In 1978 she delivered a petition to Downing Street with 1.5 million signatures protesting about systemic child sexual abuse. It was a full three decades before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke at the BBC.
Marr also highlights the questionable behaviour of Whitehouse’s liberal opponents. Hugh Carleton Greene, the brother of the novelist Graham Greene, who was Director-General of the BBC throughout the 1960s, loathed the provincial housewife with the lacquered hair-do and refused ever to meet her. Instead he had a satirical portrait painted of her naked, with five breasts, at which he would throw darts. Behaviour that probably seemed sophisticated and witty 50 years ago would strike us today as hateful and sick.
Marr repeatedly shows himself to be nimble at spotting the mid-Elizabethan parallels with our current crises. Going to press in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, he tells the story of the Mangrove Nine. In 1970 nine black British activists were charged with rioting against the Notting Hill police for targeting a local black-owned restaurant, the Mangrove. The trial was scrappy and bad-tempered, ending with the defendants being acquitted of the major charges. By then, the judge had horrified both the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office by declaring that the case had “regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides”. The Met tried to have this part of his summing up withdrawn and the judge refused. Nearly 30 years later, the report into the Stephen Lawrence case would find the police force guilty of “institutional racism” and everyone declared themselves shocked.
As Marr’s narrative gets closer to the current moment it loses some of its momentum. Perhaps that’s because memories of the Brexit wars, the Grenfell Tower fire and Covid lockdown feel too close, detailed and messy to be woven into larger patterns and general conclusions. Indeed, in many ways they are not memories at all, but simply the present continuing to unspool crazily into our current lives. For this reason Marr sensibly resists finishing his account of post-war Britain with a grand flourish and anodyne words about looking forward to the future. Instead, he closes by urging us to return to the beginning of his story, to those days in the 1950s when, having just come through a global war, early Elizabethans had a firmer grasp on what really mattered. Marr refers, without blushing, to “that more consciously moral, frugal, hard-working and optimistic Britain that is part of our common history” and wonders whether something of that spirit might be what we need now.
Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged
By Andrew Marr
William Collins, 512pp, £20