No, Mrs May, the ‘Bri­tish dream’ is not about money

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - SI­MON HEFFER READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion

The out­go­ing Ger­man am­bas­sador, Dr Pe­ter Am­mon, ob­served last week that some Brex­i­teers had a sense of na­tional iden­tity forged by the Sec­ond World War. This is not sur­pris­ing. It was al­most the last time we were en­cour­aged to have a na­tional iden­tity – some­thing mem­ber­ship of the EU, with its ob­ses­sion with “a Europe of the re­gions”, ac­tively de­terred. Also, “the Nazis” are a main­stay of the fab­u­lously un­am­bi­tious GCSE his­tory course.

On her trip to China shortly af­ter­wards, Mrs May ex­pressed her view of Bri­tish iden­tity – or what she called “the Bri­tish dream”. It was that each gen­er­a­tion should be richer than its par­ents’. In a coun­try where his­tory is taught so poorly as, ap­par­ently, hardly to be worth teach­ing at all, it is per­haps no sur­prise that even its Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Prime Min­is­ter should have such a per­verse idea of Bri­tish na­tional iden­tity.

To some of us, “the Bri­tish dream” – Mrs May even had to bor­row an Amer­i­can id­iom to ex­press her­self – has lit­tle to do with the ac­qui­si­tion of wealth, pleas­ant though that may be. It sits in the idea of the his­toric lib­er­ties of an old coun­try, won steadily and in­cre­men­tally since Magna Carta, through civil wars, a glo­ri­ous revo­lu­tion, re­form Acts and, in­deed, two world wars.

It em­braces democ­racy and a rule of law, ideas our mem­ber­ship of the EU cor­rupted, and to whose cor­rup­tion too many charged with safe­guard­ing our lib­er­ties turned a blind eye for decades. More lu­cid Brex­i­teers – Ja­cob ReesMogg, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove – have al­luded to this.

For Mrs May, how­ever, it is an­other un­gras­pable con­cept de­tach­ing her from most of the peo­ple she pur­ports to gov­ern, and from her core sup­port­ers.

A hun­dred years ago, Lloyd George sat at a din­ner – re­called by Duff Cooper, who was also present, in his mem­oir Old Men For­get

– and spoke, as a Welsh­man, about how hard it was to put any­thing over on the English.

He claimed the English still re­mem­bered the Hun­gry For­ties and the fires of Smith­field, and would fight for lib­erty and the bread on their ta­bles. The Hun­gry For­ties were still – just – in liv­ing mem­ory; the fires of Smith­field had been snuffed out 350 years ear­lier. It was an age where chil­dren left school at 13, but had enough of a ground­ing in his­tory to know cer­tain im­por­tant things about where they had come from. Pa­tri­o­tism is a nat­u­ral im­pulse in a de­cent coun­try, so to­day’s young cling to what lit­tle they know the Bri­tish have to be proud of – the de­feat of the Nazis – and iden­tify with it.

The lack of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, of which we are all now so painfully aware, in­cludes a fail­ure to re­flect the achieve­ments of the Bri­tish past be­yond 1939-45. In­stead of Mrs May ar­tic­u­lat­ing the ba­nal idea that our na­tional “dream” is for our chil­dren to have more on their bal­ance sheets than we do, she should be talk­ing about the re­build­ing of our democ­racy in which, post-Brexit, we once more vote for those who take the key de­ci­sions af­fect­ing us, and the re­in­sti­tu­tion of a rule of law jus­ti­cia­ble in our own courts.

For too long – since, it seems, Mrs May was at school – we have not taught the his­tory of these things, which should be cen­tral to our idea of who we are. It is time to start.

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