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1 June 2022

How nostalgia fuels the culture wars

In her new book Rule, Nostalgia, Hannah Rose Woods explores how illusory and contested golden ages have haunted Britain since medieval times.

By Richard J Evans

In 2016, the Washington Post declared that the vote for Brexit showed that Britain was determined to “cling to imperial nostalgia” and “delusions of empire”. The New York Times saw it as “England’s last gasp of empire”. “Britain’s imperial fantasies,” concluded Gary Younge in the Guardian, “have given us Brexit.” Boris Johnson claimed that leaving the EU would enable the British to “go back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten over the past 45 years: to find friends, to open markets, to promote our culture and our values”. The Tory MP Grant Shapps optimistically predicted that Britain would rediscover the “swashbuckling spirit of the 19th century” and become “Global Britain” once more – “the world’s greatest trading nation”, as it once was in the Victorian era.

As Hannah Rose Woods points out in this intelligent and eminently readable book – her first – this was a classic example of nostalgia, of looking back in time to something that had been lost and could never be recreated. It was, she suggests, “nostalgia for the spoils of imperialism (both psychic and material) without the wish to run an empire – an insistence on having one’s cake and eating it, taking moral credit for having decolonised while retaining the bullish superiority of an imperial power”. What was important, Johnson said, was to rekindle the spirit of empire, the “soft power” of British influence extended across the globe, “not to build a new empire, heaven forfend”.

The desire to reclaim the memory of the empire as an inspiration for Britain in the post-Brexit era has also led to furious denunciations of those who dare point to its negative features. Defenders of the empire complain that history is being “erased” in the process of “decolonising” the British past and its representations in the current campaigns to remove statues of imperial heroes such as Cecil Rhodes, or return colonial loot from Britain’s museums to the peoples from whom it was stolen. But it’s their romanticised image of our imperial past that constitutes the real erasure. We should, apparently, celebrate Britain’s part in abolishing slavery but forget entirely about its role in creating the transatlantic trade in the first place. “We are,” Woods says, “in a strange position where each call for remembrance is recast as forgetting.”

An altogether different nostalgic legend, she says, is to be found in the oft-repeated claim that plucky little Britain “stood alone” against a host of powerful enemies in the two world wars, a myth that conveniently ignores the role of Canadian, Australian and other soldiers from the empire, including many from the Indian subcontinent, fighting at the Somme or on the Normandy beaches. Imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia go together in so many ways.

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Many of those who vaunt their pride in Britain’s imperial past also want to think of it as entirely white, forgetting both its legacy of non-white immigrants from the colonies and their presence in Britain as racial minorities over a long period of time, above all in port cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool and London. When the historian Mary Beard pointed out that many black soldiers served in the Roman army when it occupied Britain, she faced “a torrent of aggressive insults” and accusations of “rewriting history” (which is, of course, the historian’s job).

Instead of celebrating the historic multiculturalism of the English, whom Daniel Defoe called a “mongrel half-bred race” that “receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust”, modern-day racists have glorified the days when the British considered themselves, as the Edwardian politician Joseph Chamberlain put it, “the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen”. The shameful recent treatment of the Windrush generation forgets that Caribbean immigrants came to the UK after the war at the invitation of the British government, and passes over the enormous contribution they have made to British life since.

Nostalgia, however, wasn’t the monopoly of Leavers in the Brexit debates. Some Remainers argued that Britain had rescued Europe from tyranny in the Second World War and shouldn’t abandon it now. In similar fashion, Remainers in the 2020s indulge in nostalgia when they fondly recall the decades when the UK was part of the EU.

Nostalgia isn’t the prerogative of the political right, either: many on the left now look back with longing to the 2012 London Olympics, when patriotism and multiculturalism came together in a celebration of what the New York Times then called “a nation secure in its own post-empire identity”. The moment was short-lived, and within a few years, fresh “culture wars” had broken out in the British media. Even in 2012 there were those who thought that Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was “left-wing posturing” and, as one Tory MP described it at the time, “multicultural crap”.

Although today’s culture wars are the starting-point and inspiration for Rule, Nostalgia, Woods sets them in a far longer temporal context, going back chapter by chapter to the 16th century. Telling a story backwards in time is a difficult feat, and sometimes (as, for example, in Martin Amis’s 1991 novel Time’s Arrow) the technique threatens to overpower the content. It works here because this is less a book about causation, which has to be analysed through a forward progression in time, than about continuity, which does not. The object and expression of nostalgia may change, but its basic features remain much the same: people lamenting that things weren’t what they used to be in the good old days.

The longing for a lost past was as hotly disputed and heavily criticised in the 17th or 16th centuries as it is today. When we interrogate what Woods calls “nostalgia’s perpetual backwards glance” we find that the object of nostalgia itself harboured its own idealisation of an even more distant past. Each era had its paradoxes too: while some in every age pined for an imagined past of peace and plenty, others lamented the luxury and self-indulgence of the present, and harked back to when times were tough, but people got through them in a spirit of pulling together for the common good, as they did during the Blitz, when they were exhorted to “keep calm and carry on”.

Nostalgia, Woods shows, has often provided people with “cultural comfort food”, giving them a sense of permanence in an time of change. The postwar determination to provide a better future led to widespread slum clearance, but it also produced a plague of high-rise apartment blocks that rapidly deteriorated into a new kind of slum.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Rose Woods writes, “Anything Victorian, in particular, was likely to be vilified as symbolising an outdated age of industrial pollution, squalor and chaotically unplanned development.” Rather than renovate Victorian terraces, architects and town planners swept everything away in the name of progress. Yet many people in London welcomed their move from East End grime to the New Towns that emerged after the war, to clean, airy settlements such as Harlow, Stevenage or Crawley.

Resistance to these trends at the time was often dismissed as cultural conservatism, and mocked as unhealthy resistance to progress. It was seen as a yearning for the old hierarchical society depicted in radio soap operas such as The Archers, with the tranquil village community of Ambridge presided over by Squire Lawson-Hope and its central figure, the traditionalist farmer Dan Archer; or master-and-servant television shows such as Upstairs, Downstairs and its later counterpart Downton Abbey (scripted by Tory peer Julian Fellowes).

But it wasn’t necessarily so: the Labour Party sociologist Michael Young, for example, in his 1957 work on Bethnal Green, widely regarded as an East End slum, lamented the loss of close-knit working-class communities as people were moved out to the new Essex suburb of Debden. The rise of the heritage industry, meanwhile, could be seen as a reaction against the destruction of the urban environment by capitalists or, worse still, corrupt local politicians like T Dan Smith (“Mr Newcastle”), jailed in 1974 for taking bribes from the architect and urban designer John Poulson, who was also sent to prison for corruption.

Nostalgia for a lost rural idyll fuelled earlier progressive developments such as “garden cities” and the Arts and Crafts movement, pioneered by radical figures such as William Morris. Making way for the motor car may have been the guiding principle behind the modernist devastation of cities such as Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s, but the automobile also provided new opportunities for exploring the English countryside to those who could afford it. (When my father bought his first Morris Minor in 1959, we would go out from our suburban home every Sunday for a “spin”, visiting quaint Essex villages such as Finchingfield or Stock: this new pastime gave rise to the derogatory epithet “Sunday driver” for those who dawdled through the lanes rather than whizzing along the highways.)

As urbanisation and industrialisation transformed Britain in the 19th century, the Victorians too found solace in nostalgia for “England’s green and pleasant land”, rediscovering folkloric traditions and looking back to the lost age of “Merrie England”. Writers such as Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli lamented the loss of the supposed stability offered by the feudal system, while architects pushed forward the gothic revival, and the pre-Raphaelites looked to medieval art for inspiration.

Rule Britannia: a map of the world from 1886 with the British empire marked in red. Image by Granger/Shutterstock

There were counter-currents, of course, which expressed that most Victorian of beliefs: faith in progress. The Middle Ages after all were a time of plague and poverty, as well as piety and paternalism. Gothic novels painted a picture of horror and violence, while Charles Dickens, writing A Child’s History of England (1851), denounced the medieval period as one of “great oppression”. For Dickens, the Tudors were just as bad, with Henry VIII (“a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature”) and his successors presiding over a country “in which people were constantly being roasted to death”.

In the Tudor and Stuart periods, the debate turned on dramatic religious and political changes, as Protestants and Puritans claimed to be restoring Christianity to its original purity and throwing off the “Norman Yoke” that had supposedly destroyed the old freedoms of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. At the same time, their critics mourned the suppression of ancient folk festivities and the dissolution of the monasteries, with the many services they had provided to travellers and local communities alike.

What lessons are to be learned from this romp through the history of nostalgia and its critics? One is that toppling statues and “rewriting history” are far from novel. In 1643, for instance, parliament established the wonderfully named Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry, while the iconoclasm of the 16th-century Reformation can be vividly experienced in the desecrated remains of the medieval statuary in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.

The centuries of argument discussed in Rule, Nostalgia make it clear that attitudes to the past have never been uncontested. The claim that it is wrong to apply present-day moral standards to imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes or slave traders like Edward Colston ignores the many critics who condemned them in their own day. Nostalgia can serve many purposes. It can be left-wing as well as right-wing, progressive as well as reactionary.

The culture wars of the early 21st century are not a new phenomenon. We can confidently expect them to continue, even if they are sure to take different forms of expression in the future.

Richard J Evans is the author of, among other books, “In Defence of History” (Granta) and “Altered Pasts” (Little, Brown)

Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain
Hannah Rose Woods
WH Allen, 394pp, £20

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special