The United Kingdom was promised a Heritage General Election from the very beginning of the year 2001.footnote1 So determined was New Labour to stage it that nothing was to be allowed to get in its way. Until, that is, the virtual shut-down of the British countryside by the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, from March onwards. Even this was at first impatiently disregarded. But things got so bad, with so many indications of voter resentment and apathy, that Prime Minister Blair found himself unable to hold the show in May, as at first hoped. A short postponement to June was agreed, with extreme reluctance, and against great opposition from within his Party. Meanwhile, funeral pyres and pits notwithstanding, British voters found themselves ushered back into the old election-time Music Hall—obliged to take their seats for the traditional ‘swingometer’ Pantomime, as the orchestra tuned up, and the reassuring chink of glasses resounded from the interval bar. Although nobody thought New Labour would lose, the Magus declared war against ‘apathy’ early on, letting it be known he was impatient, and eager to consummate the Third Way. His entire court clearly feared that, in tune with New Labour’s general obeisance towards things American, British voting abstention might slump down to US levels, thus undermining his spell.

Once settled in their places the public was to be treated to another session of stage mesmerism, something like the one unforgettably described by Thomas Mann in Mario and the Magician (1929). Mann was evoking 1920s Italy, through an old-fashioned pier-show and its sinister star, the Cavaliere Cipolla—he could not have imagined Big Brother or The Weakest Link:

While [the magician] still practised some rhetorical circumlocutions, the tests themselves were one long series of attacks upon the will-power, the loss or compulsion of volition. Comic, exciting, amazing by turns, by midnight they were still in full swing; we ran the gamut of all the phenomena this natural–unnatural field has to show, from the unimpressive at one end of the scale to the monstrous at the other . . .footnote2

Mann noted that the Italian public knew, or half-knew, how the vile hypnotist was at once leading and humiliating them, and yet remained quite unable to do other than conform. Even at the mercy of the uncanny, they felt compelled to let ‘nature’ take its course.

In part the election’s unreality could of course be traced to the immediate prior collapse of so much of Britain’s fabric. The acrid smoke of Polling Day could not make voters forget all the shames of yesterday. The Passport Scandal, BSE, CJD, the grim farce of the Asylum-seekers, the tale of The Dome, the continuing slide of the Health Service, the state of H.M.’s Prison Service, British Railtrack’s collapse, the Fuel Crisis, the Hinduja brothers: Britannia Music Hall was in sensationally poor shape well before March 2001. But such unreality must derive from deeper causes. Last year the BBC’s Political Correspondent Andrew Marr brought out a book called The Day Britain Died, but his speculative conclusions remained rather mild—in effect adding a question mark to his title. There was no need for that. Rigor mortis was already advanced when the book appeared, and even at that time remedy was none. Now we are in 2001, and can sum up its state in a phrase: Britain has actually ceased to exist. Blair started operations four years ago with an impersonation of glad, self-confident morning; in 2001 we find him racing to outpace the shade of night. All that has really happened in the time between is that (so to speak) Britain has remorselessly turned into ‘Britain’, a realm of general impersonation and self-delusion. But while old Britain—the United Kingdom—was quite well understood, its successor is not. Yet ‘Britain’ has by now been long enough in existence (from the 1980s to the present) to evolve its own laws and customs, and assume the consistency of a distinct phase of UK affairs. These ‘laws’ are often wildly different from (or even contrary to) those of the erstwhile United Kingdom.footnote3