Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
10 May 2012updated 11 Sep 2021 9:28am

Enough of this carry on

Is "Keep Calm And Carry On" an appropriate mantra for modern Britain?

By Mike Bonnet

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. 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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. 

Content from our partners
The green transition can unlock 40,000 new businesses and £175bn
Building the business case for growth
“On supporting farmers, McDonald’s sets a high standard”

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.

Topics in this article :