Why we hark back to the old certainties

For some time, there has been a population leak from middle Britain. Thousands, maybe millions, of restless, disgruntled Britons have sold up and moved abroad to somewhere with a swimming-pool, agreeable wine and surprisingly nice locals. Middle-aged, middle-class and mostly middle-brained, the emigrants are not much missed as they read up on the latest horrors of life back home in their weekly edition of the Daily Express.

But now something rather more serious is happening. The foreigners are going. First it was the Poles, who had brought such energy and flair to these islands. Now, almost as seriously, Australians are packing their bags. Since last June, each month has seen an average of 2,600 immigrants from Australia to Britain returning home, an increase of almost 1,000 per month on the departure rate of the previous five years. The people who have brought a cheery dynamism to our businesses, bars and dental surgeries are deserting us.

One can hardly blame them. Here the economy is in free fall; there, largely thanks to a boom in supplying minerals for China’s industrial expansion, the growth rate has increased by 3.6 per cent over the past year. Here, an exhausted government staggers from one crisis to another; there the new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is enjoying the kind of approval ratings Tony Blair experienced during his sunshine moment in 1997.

Money and politics, however, do not tell the whole story, even in 2008. Behind all the talk of the cost of living and a better future for the kids, there are surely deeper reasons for the disenchantment of those who once crossed continents to start a new life here.

There is a problem of morale. Over the past half century, Britain has experienced brief spasms of optimism and self-belief. In the mid-1960s, music, fashion and even football conspired to make Harold Wilson’s government seem rather hipper than in fact it was. The 1980s saw us up among world leaders when it came to ruthless, capitalist greed. Then, for a few short years at the end of the 20th century, Britain was again for a variety of reasons – a pearly-toothed prime minister, some rather good music, the death of a princess – on the cutting edge of things.

In between these short-lived moments of excitement, there have been long periods of uncertainty and hand-wringing as to what Britain could or should represent. Heritage or the future? Dynamism or niceness? True blue patriotism or something more caring and international?

Today, as the departing Poles and Aussies have sensed, we are going through a period of profound muddle. Like a person experiencing some sort of nervous collapse, we have taken to clinging nervously to old certainties.

A small but telling example of the new mood of backward-looking cultural jitteriness comes to us courtesy of the British Library. That great institution wished to mark the 10th anniversary of the move to St Pancras, and chose a peculiarly dire way of doing it. To point up its own treasures, the library will be running a poll for the public to elect the country’s best-loved living characters – its national treasures.

Naff and embarrassingly literal it may be, but the idea itself is one which would not necessarily have had the average Aussie or Pole checking flight schedules. Every country, after all, needs its heroes.

It is with the list of national treasures for whom we all can vote that despair sets in. Among those in public life are Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Stirling Moss. The innovators include Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson. The arts team includes Dame Judi Dench and, poor guy, Jools Holland, while among the scientists are Baroness Greenfield and, rather oddly, Sir Patrick Moore.

Presumably no one asked these people whether they wanted to be national treasures. Stephen Fry and Ian McEwan, one would like to think, would be profoundly embarrassed by the idea. For Sir Jonathan Miller, a man easily slighted, inclusion beside Dame Helen Mirren will doubtless be added to the long lists of insults he has had to endure throughout his life.

But taken together, this top 50 of national darlings suggest a national longing for comfortable authority figures. It is the sort of list which could only be compiled in a country caught uneasily between celebrity and seriousness, a collection of establishment sirs and dames who form a new media-led aristocracy. Containing a single black face (that of the Archbishop of York), it harks back to the safer days of the past.

Of course, we should all vote. Personally, I shall be going for Claire Rayner – sane, liberal and, most important of all given the national mood, a former nurse.