There is always something uncanny about national treasures, or official heroes. They are always an artificial imposition, and are seldom actually liked.
A national treasure is a cherished side character; they are never at the centre of events, and are, endearingly, never the holder of secular powers. They stand around the edges of a ruling class’s mental universe: observing, warning, guiding, admonishing – sometimes obliquely, sometimes not. They act as the conscience of a nation, or, rather, as the conscience of its rulers.
It is often asked: “Why can’t we just make Sir David Attenborough Prime Minister?” But this is to misunderstand national treasures and their role. Their choice – if we can call it that – to not take up real power in national life is part of their appeal. It is an act of self-denial. It is holy resignation.
If we look at it this way, then the first ever British national treasure was Edmund Burke, famous for his Reflections. Burke was principled; Burke was conscientious; Burke was solemn; Burke was worthy; Burke never achieved a higher office than Paymaster of the Forces – a minor clerical job. Nevertheless, especially in the decade after his death in 1797, Burke could be cherished as the burning conscience of his society. Impossible to deal with as a man, but, nevertheless, part of the furniture. The immediate inheritor of this role was one of Burke’s contemporaries: William Wilberforce, the apostle of Victorianism, and the scourge of English popular customs like bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and boxing.
The great enemy of the national treasure is, of course, the figure of genuine mass appeal. The popular conqueror of India Warren Hastings had no greater antagonist than Burke. Jeremy Clarkson is now harried from network to network.
Burke set the tone for national treasures in Britain. A British national treasure is an officially-sanctioned observer of society, and a defender of its rules and decorum. Mild, dutiful, wise, slightly inscrutable, with a personal probity that verges on sexlessness.
By the 19th Century this basic character was well established. Charles George Gordon was a pretty good general, but what elevated him to national treasure status was to piously allow himself to be slaughtered in Khartoum rather than betray the letter of his orders. A more daring captain like Clive of India or Murat – the kind beloved of earlier ages – would have snuck off to fight another day.
The suite of characteristics that makes up a national treasure lends itself to two archetypes, both forces for conservatism: the bureaucrat, and the light entertainer. So it has proven. Bruce Forsyth; David Frost; Stephen Fry; Betty Boothroyd; and latterly, Jackie Weaver, Lindsay Hoyle, and Sue Gray. All have been drawn from either of these two wells, and have led their lives accordingly.
The trouble is that Britain’s governing classes, especially after 1997, have begun to insist more and more strongly on these qualities: more rule-bound; more solemn; more strivingly modest. These characteristics, once endearing in their own way, have now started to ferment. Increasingly, the only individuals who would ever consent to play this role are either second-rate or suspect.
This has led to a gradual decline in the quality of national treasures. Modern Britain cannot bring itself to embrace talented individuals that the Victorians would not have hesitated to canonize – individuals who might have proven a real asset to the defence of Windsorite social order. Melvyn Bragg, the public informer, is too irate. Jonathan Sumption, a grandfatherly and even-handed jurist, has too much of an independent streak.
Increasingly, Britain’s rulers must content themselves with those whose only virtue is respect for procedure. Jackie Weaver, a recent product, has no gift of the gab, and can only huff and puff her way through what are entirely standard primetime debates.
Worse still, the two genera of national treasure are increasingly merged into a united caste of entertainer-bureaucrats. In this regard, Elizabeth Windsor was very much a pioneer, combining oblique defences of propriety and social order with a frisson of showbiz.
By the early 2020s, the standard British national treasure is an entertainer and informer, a bursar of charitable millions, a practitioner of old-fashioned mannerisms, who maintains a special relationship with the House of Windsor. This model – startlingly – remains the same basic one established by Jimmy Savile.
Meanwhile, the social importance of these people is evermore emphasised by England’s ruling classes. One refrain about Elizabeth II was that she, in her person, ‘held together’ 21st Century Britain: the same has been said of David Attenborough and Captain Tom Moore. This kind of hysteria has no foreign analogue; in the United States, Tom Hanks and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not assigned such a role in the body politic.
Louder also is the insistence that we like these people. My first visceral experience of this was when I was informed in a series of adverts that I loved Phillip Schofield, a television presenter of little distinction. As we have seen, these people are not for our consumption. It is therefore of little surprise that they seldom inspire any real popular love. Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig are not liked, only obeyed. There is a garrison quality to these national treasures. Beyond their core constituency of public sector employees, popular opinion on these people ranges from sullen indifference to outright hostility. This can explain the explosions of bile in response to, say, Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby’s queue-jumping, outbursts that are totally disproportionate to the offence. This is because these episodes are not the cause, only the occasion. The jacqueries against these people are increasingly bloody, taking on the character of peasant guerrillas ambushing and felling minor nobles.
With Huw Edwards, the British national treasure reaches its terminus. He is a national treasure in its most literal and pared-down sense: someone who reads out conventional wisdom. It is impossible to be more solemn; more ponderous; more worthy than Huw Edwards – there is no more dynamism, wit, or energy to slough off. Huw Edwards is conscientiousness and nothing else; the ur-creature of Late Windsorite society – practically grown in a lab. Of talents he has precious few: he has none of the warmth or reassurance of Walter Cronkite, and instead speaks in the same tremulous, testy, bitchy, superficially old-world style of Downton Abbey dialogue.