Show Hide image

Buns, bunting and retro-imperialism: Laurie Penny on British twee

Royal wedding cheerleaders want to drag us back to the days of deference.

As the Royal Wedding slouches into being, Britain is drowning under a wave of retro kitsch. The boho wankers of London have decided that liking the monarchy is vintage chic, a bit like owning a Gameboy from 1991, and have emblazoned club hoardings with the slogan 'don't hate on Kate' superimposed over the Union Jack.

On the glorious day itself, a street party will be held in Shoreditch, in the heart of the capital's trendy art district, to celebrate all things British and bygone -- like wartime "victory rolls", the lindy hop and the relevance of the house of Windsor. This bric-a-brac of old-fashioned Englishness does not include a polio float or imprisonment for homosexuals, but there will be a Chas-and-Dave tribute band.

For some, this is more supporting evidence in the case for Shoreditch to be purified with fire, its juice-bars sacked, its art toffs and trust-fund junkies driven weeping to Camberwell and Newham where they may have to pay for their own drugs. The retro rot has spread beyond hipsterville, however.

Other street parties in the capital will be distributing T-shirts printed with the omnipresent "Keep Calm and Carry On" design, the "ironic" wartime propaganda poster that now infests the chinaware of the middle classes, reminding us that fortitude in the face of government-imposed austerity is just like fortitude in the face of Nazi invasion. As with the "victory rolls", the message is confused: precisely what does the marriage of a young 21st-century aristocrat have to do with a war we fought almost 70 years ago?

Twee aesthetic nostalgia for a fantasy of "lost Britishness" has reached fever pitch. It goes way beyond the Wedding. A part of the Daily Mail offices is wallpapered with images of bulldogs, telephone boxes and, yes, spitfires, done out in patriotic red, white and blue. Consumers are exhorted to buy dairy products on which, according to the advertisers, "Empires were Built".

There is something monstrous in this fetishisation of wartime austerity and imperial pride, given that our government is currently dismantling the Attlee settlement and dispatching troops for yet another war of intervention -- but there is something tragic there, too.

Inherent in this accumulation of cultural relics is the belief that modern Britain has little to feel proud of, and less to look forward to. Millions of people are about to lose their jobs and millions more are waiting for their living standards to drop through the floor as education, housing and basic consumer goods become harder to access.

There is a sense that the future is closing down, while Britain's glorious past shines ever brighter.

The Second World War is reserved for special reverence, because this is the last moment in recent British history where we can be sure that our country was unmitigatedly on the side of good. Most of us want to be able to feel proud of being British, but that desire is being ruthlessly exploited in the quest for public acquiescence to enforced austerity.

The "Blitz Spirit" is evoked by PR managers from Dalston to Downing Street, encouraging us to summon that deferential British ability to weather any storm our rulers happen to steer us into. What nobody mentions is that this willingness to Keep Calm and Carry On is one of the very worst features of our national character.

All of this is no good reason not to take advantage of a day off and a party in the sunshine. But there is far more to Britain today than buns, bunting and retro-imperialism.

This country does not have to behave like a reclusive elderly person, polishing its relics in darkened rooms, hoarding mementos and paranoid prejudices from a time when the world made sense. This country doesn't just have a past. It also has a future.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR