Friday, 19 February 2016

Battling for Britain

I had intended to write a post about Owen Hatherley’s stimulating recent book The Ministry of Nostalgia, and then thought I wanted to write something about today’s EU summit where Britain is negotiating terms prior to a Referendum on continued membership. But it occurred to me that the two are in many ways linked.
Hatherley’s book picks up on something which I have also noticed and commented on in this blog, namely the grotesque historical spoonerism in which wartime and post-war austerity is invoked to justify swingeing public budget cuts. What was originally about shared suffering in order to build collective goods becomes the cover for their dismemberment. Hatherley analyses this “austerity nostalgia” at length, orchestrated in particular through the motif of the now ubiquitous ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan. Originally devised (although not in fact used) as wartime propaganda, it now indexes a certain sort of British – or English – self-identity of stoical suffering.
Whilst most obviously consonant with the political projects of the right – and I will return to this – Hatherley deploys a most intriguing argument about how it fits in with a certain kind of leftist nostalgia which, whilst he has some sympathy with it, he finds to be ultimately impotent. That chimed with me because it is a nostalgia that I am prone to, as I wrote in my post about Jonathan Coe’s novelistic treatment of the same kind of thinking. And amongst the wide range of examples – many of them to do with architecture – that Hatherley deploys I was interested to see that one was Ken Loach’s film 1945, which I also posted about on this blog, even linking it to the perversity of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ motif! There’s also critical (but again sympathetic) mention of one of my favourite recent(ish) books, historian Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, as a key statement of leftist nostalgia. So, in short, Hatherley’s book both spoke to but also challenged many of the things I believe and am interested in. I am still digesting what to make of it and may well post about this in due course.
But this book also re-enforces my sense of what lies beneath the EU Referendum. For “austerity nostalgia” and its associated tropes seems very much to inform David Cameron’s avowed intention to ‘battle for Britain’ in his EU re-negotiation. The very fact of using such language is surely designed to underline its primary purpose: to persuade the undecided or only vaguely interested to vote to stay in. It is not that the things under negotiation are of any great significance – they are as irrelevant to those implacably opposed to EU membership as to those, such as myself, who are broadly supportive. But the language speaks to the softer edges of opposition, the hard core of which is animated by the still potent idea of Britain ‘standing alone’ during the war, and which seems still to dream of a world something like that of (an imagination of) early post-war Britain. It speaks to a sullen, resentful sensibility, sometimes vicious, other times sentimental. Local, not cosmopolitan. Pathetic (in its literal sense) but not always necessarily ignoble.
In a more practical vein, though, the re-negotiation shows the incoherence of the Brexit case in at least two ways. One is that the persistent complaint of those making that case is that the EU is ruled by diktat from Brussels, with no democracy. Yet when it emerged that even if Brussels agreed to the terms, they would be subject to ratification by the democratically elected European Parliament there was outrage. The other is that the terms of the re-negotiation were seen as hopelessly limited and yet even these had been ‘watered down’ as the protracted negotiation progressed. Yet it is an article of faith amongst Brexiters that on leaving the UK will be able to quickly negotiate with exactly the same counterparties a full-spectrum free trade deal on the most generous of terms.
Those two things seem to spell out the twin poles of the Brexit version of nostalgia. On the one hand, the idea of Britain being hamstrung; on the other of Britain being overweaningly powerful. A battle of Britain speaks well to this, since 1940 was the moment at which Britain was both at its weakest and strongest. But how long are we to live in the long shadow of that summer, now 75 years ago? In my book (Grey, 2012) about Bletchley Park (the wartime codebreaking centre) I write about how ‘the war’ was an omnipresent part of my childhood in the 1970s, since it had been the defining experience of my parents and teachers. One might have thought that this would have diminished in the subsequent years, but it has not. Hathaway notes how it is now the experience of our grandparents that gets referenced in austerity nostalgia. Certainly the TV channels remain full of wartime films and documentaries. I am not sure that any other country in the world is still so preoccupied with the war, unless it is Putin’s Russia which, by the way, would more than any other country be the benefactor of Brexit.
In this sense, though, one can certainly see the present situation as a battle for Britain in a rather different sense. The decision about whether to remain in the EU is in some ways a decision about what Britain is to be and how it is to think about itself. A Brexit would re-enforce the remark made in 1963 by American Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. That indeed is very evident in the historical and geo-political absurdity of the idea championed by many Brexiters of creating a politics and trade bloc based on the Commonwealth. And it would very forcibly bring home to British people quite how much the world has changed since 1940 since in a muted way the US, Indian and Chinese administrations have made it clear that Britain is only of interest as a partner to the extent that it is an EU member. Plus Britain itself would surely not survive Brexit, since Scotland, for sure, would become independent.
So this is the link between Hatherley’s perceptive book and the EU Referendum negotiations going on even as I write: is Britain, or England in fact, to be locked into a nostalgic fantasy of keeping calm and carrying on? Or will it embrace the undoubted imperfections of the EU and acknowledge the geo-political realpolitik of the present? This is about unquantifiable feelings, images and sensibilities but it will in the end come down to some quite precise, quite narrowly-ranged, numbers between 60-40 for in and 60-40 for out. The 20% difference between those two outcomes represents the undecided or shiftable vote that Cameron’s otherwise meaningless renegotiation is designed to appeal to. His gamble is that they can be persuaded to keep calm and carry on with EU membership and if he is right he will win the vote. The argument? Well, that has still to be faced up to, let alone won.
Grey, C. (2012). Decoding Organization. Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Judt, T. (2011). Ill Fares the Land. London: Penguin

Hatherley, O. (2016). The Ministry of Nostalgia. London: Verso.


  1. Interesting that in the early opinion polls, young people are strongly pro-European and older ones strongly anti.

    1. Thanks, Yiannis. Yes, and this means that a key issue in the referendum outcome will be the relative turnout of older and younger age groups. By the way, some Brexiters have a highly conspiratorial view of the support of younger people for the EU, ascribing it to their having been fed a diet of EU propaganda by the ‘liberal-left’ (or sometimes even ‘cultural marxist’) teaching ‘establishment’.


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