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29 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:58pm

The UK is embracing nostalgia, but politicians must instead prepare us for the future

Two-thirds of citizens believe the UK is in acute decline.

By Sophie Gaston

The age of nostalgia is upon us. While Britain has always been a country with an immensely close and proud relationship to its history, we find ourselves in a unique moment in which 63 per cent of citizens now believe the country is in a state of acute decline.

Over the centuries, our politics has slipped in and out of a nostalgic reverie, with waves of historical longing washing over us during times of social and economic change. During the industrial revolution, as we reached a zenith of human technological advancement and urban expansion, we were also prone to reflecting fondly on our quiet village life and rolling green landscapes.

Contemporary nostalgia feels especially anachronistic, because it comes at the end of such a sustained period of progressive politics, which has seen our society become markedly more open, diverse and globally connected. The political shocks that have ricocheted around the West over recent years reflect the fact that many citizens did not feel they had a stake in this liberal orthodoxy, and that these advancements were perceived to have benefited some at the expense of others.

Almost three-quarters of Britons believe their communities have been eroded over the course of their lifetimes. Today’s politics offers to stop the clock on further change, and to restore some of the social and cultural conditions citizens believe have been lost in the pursuit of progress. Such messages have become so successful that entire elections can now be fought without any future-oriented manifestos whatsoever.

For example, many of the most prominent issues in the 2017 general election would have seemed utterly antiquated 20 years ago in the age of Things Can Only Get Better. This time Labour pitched renationalisation across the board, while grammar schools and fox hunting reared their heads for the Conservatives. It was the same story in the EU referendum. Our analysis of the campaign’s newspaper coverage shows both sides sought to out-play one another in harnessing history, invoking the Second World War at any possible opportunity.

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Nostalgia is an effective campaigning tool because it captures such an emotive, hard-wired human condition. It is natural that, as we age, the challenges of the past are dulled in our memories, and all of those happy moments we actively recall seem to shine more brightly.

Nostalgia becomes more dangerous when it shifts from the personal domain to become a powerful political force. When it compels us to reject progress and to restore the structures and power dynamics of the past, convincing us that politicians and other institutions have fundamentally lost the capacity to advance our social and economic settlement.

Its rhetoric can become exclusionary in a populist manner, promising to re-establish conditions that favour the worthiest of citizens, while disadvantaging those with more nascent political agency. It is also true that campaigns seeped in nostalgia can set citizens up for disappointment, when the trade-offs inherent in government are ultimately revealed. By emboldening citizens to reject the necessity of change in a globalised world, we also restrain our capacity to innovate and compete.

This issue is even more profound when we consider that we stand on the cusp of a profound new technological revolution, which will utterly reshape our economy and our society. Instead of future-fitting our institutions and preparing citizens for what lies ahead, nostalgia draws precious energies to focus on what has been lost.

Certainly, if we consider nostalgia as an expression of grievance against the present day, we cannot dismiss this phenomenon as irrational or feeble. The solution lies in political leadership. Politicians must listen more, but rather than capitulating to the past, they must consider how they can not only help citizens to feel safer in the present, but also how they can best prepare and guide them through the tremendous changes we know lie ahead.

In recent years, politicians have proven particularly bad at reconciling cosmopolitanism and patriotism, or anchoring our values and identity in the face of such profound social and cultural change. Unless politicians can conjure a national narrative that is compelling and persuasive enough to triumph over the dislocation of progress, they risk slaving themselves to citizens’ desires for the more familiar past.

Sophie Gaston is Deputy Director of Demos.

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