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31 July 2023

The retromania election

Has the future of British politics ever looked more like the past?

By Fergal Kinney

At the Tony Blair Institute’s recent Future of Britain Conference, Keir Starmer took part in an interview with the former prime minister. Before an assembled audience of lanyard-wearing New Labour grandees, business figures and prospective parliamentary candidates, the duo’s tone was that of breezy flattery and scant interrogation familiar to listeners of celebrity interview podcasts. Meanwhile, over at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, a group of “despairing staffers” were reportedly urging Rishi Sunak to persuade John Major to campaign for the Tories at the next general election. The idea, seemingly, being to remind voters of the Conservatives’ unexpected 1992 victory, rather than their 1997 drubbing. Sunak himself, meanwhile, is now boasting of sitting in “Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover” as he launches his new pro-car crusade.

Stranger still, when Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, spoke on ITV News in defence of Labour’s policy of maintaining the two-child benefit cap, she deployed one of her party’s more painful moments. “To coin a phrase,” said Powell, “there just, frankly, is no money left.” She was referencing the 2010 letter that Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, left for his successor, and that was used against Ed Miliband in a TV debate during the 2015 general election.

We don’t know much about the general election, likely to be held next year, but we do know this: it will be fought in the third decade of the 21st century. The lives of those who will take to the polls are being shaped by the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while a visibly escalating climate emergency is evident in images of scorched cities. Is there any good reason why figures from the 1990s – an inverse era to our own, one of continuous growth and an illusory liberal consensus – should be embraced as gurus and touchstones for the 2020s? 

In 2011 the music journalist Simon Reynolds pioneered the term “Retromania” in his book of the same name. Reynolds, who had theorised from the front lines of UK and US music since the early 1980s, had observed the 2000s boom in band reunions and classic album reissues, alongside cinema’s increasing reliance on remakes and sequels, and fashion’s endless cycles of revival. Retromania proved sticky – used whenever a critic wanted to reference an artist’s reliance on retro sounds and the cumulative impact of this on the wider culture.

[See also: Labour minister gets an apology over “no money” note – 13 years late]

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“If the pulse of now felt weaker with each passing year,” wrote Reynolds, “that’s because in the 2000s the pop present became ever more crowded out by the past, whether in the form of archived memories of yesteryear or retro-rock leeching off ancient styles. Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once.”

That sense of every decade happening at once has recently become part of British politics. “If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm,” Starmer said in May this year, “that in 1964 it was to modernise an economy overly dependent on the kindness of strangers, in 1945 to build a new Britain, in a volatile world, out of the trauma of collective sacrifice – in 2024, it will have to be all three.” Labour in government: the deluxe Greatest Hits box set.

Nostalgic appeals in election campaigns are not new. The past can provide useful signs and signifiers to flip, illuminating changing terrain. In the 2010s both Labour and Ukip used versions of the Conservatives’ 1978 “Labour Isn’t Working” poster. But we should be alarmed in 2023 at how closely modern politics is looking over its shoulder at the binaries of previous eras.

Before the 2010 general election, the Conservative Party was careful not to attach itself too closely to Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for fear of alienating Labour converts. But it is far harder to say – as Cameron once said to Tony Blair – that a prime minister “was the future once” if you are surrounded by the remnants of your own party’s past. Check the indexes of New Labour memoirs and accounts and there are only sparse references to Harold Wilson or James Callaghan. They were viewed as irrelevant because they were irrelevant; this is healthy.

Instead, our current moment speaks to a troubling myopia. Do British politicians and their advisers have any reference points beyond themselves? If these people are able to draw from history or finance or literature, they’re doing an excellent job of hiding this. British politics’ retromania is what happens when politics is drawn heavily from those who have studied politics – the line is blurred between practitioners and, well, fans. It creates a language that’s off limits to younger voters who might look for inspiration to figures in tech or in activism instead of cultivating a working knowledge of Labour’s grand old men. 

Speaking to First Floor, a dance music Substack newsletter, last week, Reynolds reflected on how retromania had persisted across the last decade. “Maybe that’s because with AI, deepfakes and surveillance stuff,” he wondered, “the present we live in feels futuristic enough already. But I personally can’t imagine much about 2050, aside from the possibility that there will be some kind of climate-related catastrophe.”

Is British politics’ fixation on its own past a way of negating the future? Pulling up the comfort blanket and sticking on the old hits might be unhealthy for 20-something band members or pop stars, but for politicians it’s terminally negligent.

[See also: Does Rishi Sunak have any shame?]

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