Asked if he was pleased that readers were acclaiming him as Britain’s “national author”, Ian McEwan confessed to being appalled. With the best of intentions, his admirers were kindly inviting him “to step into oblivion” because national treasures must try to please everyone.
If Stephen Fry and Victoria Wood were to argue for withdrawal from the EU or Alan Bennett and Richard Briers were to demand the abolition of trade union laws, they might avoid the “oblivion” of a life that never provoked argument or offence. But they would stop being treasured because they would divide the nation. Cynics could accuse them of fearing that the stock of private treasure in their bank accounts would fall as soon as they stepped outside consensus. It strikes me that they are as afraid of losing the unremitting adoration that comes when the British throw a warm, shielding embrace around their beloved.
Alert to the dangers controversy may bring to their wealth and standing, the national treasure goes into political campaigning with the nervousness of a soldier tiptoeing through a minefield. He or she only picks causes that are so evidently right and good that opposing them feels a kind of sacrilege. Prince Diana chose the clearing up of real minefields. Bob Geldof chose the feeding of starving Africans. And when Joanna Lumley combined with English lawyers Howe & Co and the Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation (Gaeso) to demand that the government allowed veterans to settle in Britain, she, too, seemed to be standing up against an injustice so clear only the blind could miss it.
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