Created to allay the nation’s fears following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ministry of Information’s famous “Keep Calm And Carry On” posters never saw the light of day at the time. But since their rediscovery in 2000 they’ve become an ever-present in offices up and down the country, spawning numerous imitations and spin-offs. The motif’s reinvention, from wartime propaganda piece to 21st-century motivational poster, is often explained by a resonance between today’s current economic turmoil and yesterday’s threat of Nazi invasion. And although the resemblance is loose, perhaps this was what the Prime Minister had in mind when he ill-advisedly aped the slogan with his “We’re all in this together” line.
But while the public has largely ridiculed Cameron’s phrase, “Keep Calm And Carry On” seems to have won their hearts and minds. Its endurance stems from a collective nostalgia and kitsch fascination for a time, probably imagined, where old-fashioned British stoicism and resilience proved more than a match for even the greatest adversity.
Nowadays, as with all surviving Second World War phraseology, it’s trotted out repeatedly in response to the most innocuous of incidents. Queues at the petrol station? “Keep Calm And Carry On” implores the Daily Mirror. Concerned about swine flu? “Keep Calm And Carry On” advises the Health Secretary. Worried about the economy? “Keep Calm And Carry On” is the message from the Chancellor. And on and on, ad infinitum.
And it’s going to get worse. This summer looks as if it will test the patience of even the most diligent of flag wavers, as a trio of high profile events add fuel to a patriotic fire. You can almost anticipate the headlines. “Keep Calm And Carry Ma’am” commemorating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “Keep Calm And Cawwy On” (in the Sun), cautioning a shaky start for Roy Hodgson’s England in the European Championships. “Keep Calm and Marathon” ahead of Paula Radcliffe’s big race at London 2012. So common and profitable has the slogan become in fact, that last year a bitter legal dispute ended with a merchandiser successfully registering it as a trademark.
But while there’s no arguing with the phrase’s popularity, isn’t there reason to question its suitability? It’s easy to see how a call to arms for unwavering resolve and unquestionable loyalty fits in wartime, but when the current zeitgeist involves acknowledging the mess we’re in, carrying on regardless would seem an unwise thing to do. Those, like the Occupy protesters, who feel this way, are often dismissed as boat rockers and ridiculed for having the decidedly un-British temerity to point out that continuing along a failed path is an unlikely route to success.
Of course the elephant in the room is that much as we like the merchandise, we’re not really sold on the message. More often than not, the line is used in reaction to precisely the type of widespread panic it is supposed to caution against; and with precious little irony, as we continue to boast about our reserve and make a show of our stoicism. Indeed if being calm is like being ladylike or powerful, in that those who insist they are – aren’t, then Briton’s must be the most panicked people on the planet.
Whilst I’m all for British pluck, it feels like we’re laying it on a bit thick with the “Keep Calm And Carry On” mantra. When people are constantly affirming everything is OK, it’s usually a good indicator that something is up. And so far this business as usual ideology is proving an unsuccessful solution to people’s problems. Besides, with the spirit of the Blitz, the Dunkirk spirit and the bulldog spirit, I’d suggest we’re already accommodating more ghosts of world wars past than is healthy. Maybe it’s time for something new.