Bond and UK identity are not enough in a global Britain.
When Dr. No was released in 1962, James Bond was already an anachronism. The first Bond movie came just six years after Britain’s geopolitical demotion at Suez, with postwar rationing of basic commodities still fresh in the memory. Yet the world’s most famous secret agent would spend that and another 24 movies going on extravagantly luxurious jaunts around the world, unilaterally making it safe for the UK and its friends.
This week, 007 was still at it, with the release of No Time To Die, the latest film in the franchise. There are parallels with 49 years ago. Britain is again geopolitically adrift, trying to redefine its place in the world after Brexit. Its economy is marred, if temporarily, by shortages, and by some measures — such as earnings growth and productivity growth — has experienced its worst decade in centuries. Bond’s secret service milieu is as detached from such realities as ever.
This lack of realism is no flaw. The adventures of Bond are, of course, a fantasy. But which fantasies we indulge in says a lot about what we are — especially if we start to believe in them. And there is food for thought in what has and has not evolved in the Bond franchise over half a century.
The Bond character — unflappable Eton- and Fettes-educated secret agent freed from the rules that apply to lesser mortals — distilled a certain self-image of the old British establishment, with more than a few echoes in contemporary British politics. What is “Global Britain”, after all, if not a promise to make the country a little more like Bond? The UK’s new defence tie-ups with the US, Australia and Japan fit right into this vision.
The freewheeling appeal of the Bond myth also offers the temptation to think that the country is best governed if the right people can take bold action, unconstrained by procedures, norms and legal niceties, whether imposed by the EU or by domestic courts.
But as the world has evolved, so has Bond. The constants remain: the cars, the gadgets, the stylish clothes that are grotesquely unsuitable for hand-to-hand combat. Almost everything else, however, has changed.
The films’ MI6 — the intelligence service that in reality was long an infamously exclusive club — has become a genuine meritocracy, drawing on all walks of life. In the latest film, Bond’s most indispensable colleagues include black women and gay men. 007 has changed too; Bond has shed (most of) his sexism and cynicism. Even the villains have matured. Besides the clever methods of torture and assassination, they are now most striking for the emotional hurt they can inflict.
The classic Bond, and its narrow depiction of an idealised British elite, has steadily given way to a more inclusive and empathetic reflection of British society and what it can offer the world. This is less about Global Britain and more akin to the “Cool Britannia” of the late 1990s — or the more mature incarnation of a multicultural country at ease with diversity that was also on display in the 2012 London Olympics. Bond, too, featured in that display as a symbol of Britain’s identity, first meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace and then appearing to parachute with her into the Olympic stadium.
The image of a meritocratic and multicultural Britain is, perhaps, also a bit of a fantasy. But fantasies can serve as aspirations as well as delusions. The question, for the Bond universe and for the real United Kingdom alike, is which of two such strikingly different fantasies is going to dominate. It could just be, despite the latest film’s title, that the old sometimes has to be allowed to die for the new to thrive.