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When Dr. no released in 1962, James Bond was already an anachronism. The first Bond movie comes just six years after Britain’s geopolitical degradation in Suez, with rationing of basic goods still after the war still in memory. Yet the world’s most famous secret agent would spend it and 24 more films on extravagantly luxurious excursions around the world, making it unilaterally safe for the UK and its friends.
This week, 007 was still busy releasing No time to die, the latest movie in the franchise. There are parallels with 49 years ago. Britain is back on track in geopolitics and trying to redefine its place in the world after Brexit. Its economy is, if it is temporary, plagued by deficits and by some measures – such as earnings grow and productivity growth – experienced the worst decade in centuries. Bond’s secret service milieu is just as detached from such realities as ever.
This lack of realism is no mistake. The adventures of Bond are, of course, a fantasy. But what fantasies we enjoy says a lot about who we are – especially when we start believing in them. And there is food for thought about what has been and has not been developing in the Bond franchise for more than half a century.
The Bond character — an inconspicuous secret agent trained by Eton and Fettes, freed from the rules applicable to minors — distilled a certain self-image of the old British establishment, with more than a few echoes in the contemporary British politics. After all, what is ‘Global Britain’, if not a promise to make the country a little more like Bond? The UK’s new defense ties with the US, Australia and Japan fits into this vision.
The bold appeal of the Bond myth also offers the temptation to think that the country can be best governed if the right people can act boldly, unrestricted by procedures, norms and legal validity, whether by the EU or by local courts.
But as the world evolved, so did Bond. The constants remain: the cars, the equipment, the stylish clothes that are largely unsuitable for hand-to-hand combat. However, almost everything else has changed.
The MI6 of the movies – the intelligence service that has long been a notoriously exclusive club – has become a genuine meritocracy, based on all walks of life. In the latest film, Bond’s most indispensable colleagues include black women and gay men. 007 has also changed; Bond (mostly) dismissed his sexism and cynicism. Even the villains have matured. Besides the clever methods of torture and assassination, it is now the most conspicuous for the emotional hurt they can inflict.
The classic Bond, and its narrow image of an idealized British elite, gradually gave way to a more inclusive and empathetic reflection of British society and what it could offer the world. It’s 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 seen during the 2012 London Olympics. Bond also appears on the show 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 misconceptions. The question, for the Bond universe and for the real UK, is which of two such strikingly different fantasies is going to dominate. Despite the title of the latest film, the old one can sometimes be allowed to die so that the new one can flourish.