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April 14, 2014 6:30 pm

No winners in UK’s battle of the bards

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Both England’s Shakespeare and Scotland’s Burns wrote in relation to British unity
Illustration by Charles Williams of a digitised Shakespeare©Charles Williams

Is there no modern issue on which William Shakespeare does not have something to say? Daniel Hannan, a UK Conservative member of the European parliament, intends to start a Twitter hashtag, #Nothing-EscapesShakepeare, in which the English playwright opines on current headlines.

It covers everything from the refusal of Syria’s government and rebels to negotiate (“Nay, stand thou back! I will not budge a foot: this be Damascus”) to the backbench protests when Jesse Norman, the Tory MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, was demoted (“The Commons they are cold and will, I fear, revolt on Hereford’s side”).

But the bard was no crude propagandist. In King Lear, a mythical king of Britain breaks up his united realm with unhappy consequences, but the word “Britain” does not appear despite James’s campaign for political, economic and religious union. It was not until the later Cymbeline that Shakespeare produced a “British” play, in which a British king at the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion defeats and then reconciles with the Roman Empire, making him a peacemaker, a role James saw himself playing between Protestant and Catholic Europe.

Many Scots, of course, see the poet Robert Burns as their bard. The battle over whether Burns would have been a Yes or a No voter is as bitterly fought as the referendum campaign. He described the Scottish leaders who sold out for English gold in the union of 1707 as a “parcel of rogues”. Yet in the face of French threats, he wrote: “Be Britain still to Britain true,/ Among ourselves united;/ For never but by British hands/ Must British wrongs be righted!” (He was working for the British state as a taxman so may have made loyal noises to please.)

Art thrives on ambiguity not political conviction. Or, to put it another way, writers are even more slippery than politicians.

British pride wanes

Britons are less proud of being British than they were, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, to be published later this year. A third of people say they are “very proud” to be British, compared with 43 per cent a decade ago; it drops to one in five among young people. Women are slightly less proud than men, while the young and highly educated are less proud to be British than older generations or those with fewer qualifications.

Banx cartoon

Penny Young of NatCen Social Research, which carried out the survey, attributes the drop to factors including the fallout from the war in Iraq and the faltering economy since the financial crash. One might add that a series of scandals have beset national institutions such as parliament, the BBC and the National Health Service.

A slightly higher percentage of Scots declare themselves very proud of being British compared with the English or Welsh: 38 per cent as against 35 per cent and 34 per cent. Within England, the north seems to value Britishness more than the south, and cosmopolitan London least of all: only a quarter of people in the capital are very proud to be British.

The Scottish result, while on the face of it surprising, is probably explained by the fact that the independence referendum is concentrating the minds of Scottish unionists, who see Britishness as something to be defended. A bigger question is whether young people, ever more distant from the second world war generation, will grow more proud of their British heritage as they get older. Not by enough to reverse the decline, I suspect.

Advice to ignore

Sajid Javid, a Pakistani bus driver’s son who has entered the UK cabinet as culture secretary after a career in investment banking, was advised at school to become a television repair man. Critics of the quality of school careers advice would say little has changed.

brian.groom@ft.com

Twitter: @GroomB

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Letters in response to this column:

Career advice for Sajid Javid / From Mr Clark McGinn

Politicians and poetic licence / From Mr Randhir Singh Bains

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