The UK is governed by a system of cultural reverence and mythologies. The recent BBC programme ‘Icons’ showed how popular understandings of history have collided with our current politics. Is this incessant nostalgia healthy for our democracy?
As kids we were told to plan for our futures. The careers advice mentoring would pop up every once in a while, to scare the aspirations out of you, and supply you with patronising leaflets rather than information.
The future is scary when you’re fourteen and going through puberty like jam through a sock. It’s difficult to look into apprenticeships or further education when your voice is squeaking like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s skeleton.
But on Friday, a remarkable and inspiring conviction took the young onto our streets to protest against political apathy to climate change. I had no idea the marches were even planned until a few days before. Like many others, I was so utterly enthused by the kids who marched and protested. The banners, the colour and warmth, the positive energy – the scenes were electric.
Then with all their cynical blustering, the government and other conservative commentators took their mild disapproval to social media. A Number 10 spokesman railed against ‘wasted teacher resources’, which wins the Irony Award for 2019 without competition. Toby Young wrote in the Spectator that the youngsters were taken in by propaganda for “some imaginary sin”, quipping that the voting age should be raised not lowered. Of course Mr Young isn’t exactly qualified to talk about the concerns of youth – seeing as he never had a childhood, just several years of laboratory quality control before wider distribution.
The Leader of the Commons, and future Poet Laureate, Andrea Leadsom referred to the protests as “truancy”. And James Cleverly lived up to his family name with similar calls, though there was a stiff reaction telling him to ‘bunk off’ as well.
So, when it gets to election day (whenever that graces us), and the new 18-year-old voters pick up their ballot papers – I wonder who’ll be the ones giving marching orders. The government could have just ignored this whole thing, or pass it off with a neutral statement. Instead they declared a culture war against those pesky young people and widened the generation canyon even further. Probably widened it through fracking as well, the bloody fools.
It’s ignorant to believe that young people aren’t politically motivated or outward-looking. The columnists and ‘nouveau twats’ such as Toby Young and Piers Morgan are exacting a policy of misanthropy when they themselves fought for the same respect in their youth. We’re inundated with the labels of our poxy generational system. Boomers versus Millenials, or Generation X and Y fighting a Lost Generation. It’s practically science fiction, and those supposedly rigid lines sway much more than the consensus would believe.
Brexit managed to bring the generation gap back to the boil. Angry pro-EU activists have jibed against the selfish Leave voters, fuelling a young versus old battleground. It’s a stodgy argument. If you attend any local People’s Vote meeting, or a rally for Remain in your local town, you’d be surprised just how diverse the whole thing is. Grey hair battling bright hair isn’t a fair perception.
However, it would be wrong to discard such an obvious tension. Recently, the conversation turned to the very topical and relevant argument of whether Churchill was an arsehole. They even had a question dedicated to the debate on Question Time. Jacob Rees-Mogg regaled us all with remarkable historical inaccuracies about the Boer War. Yeah, it was just like Butlins really, redcoats galore…
It was reassuring to see ‘Twitterstorians’ step up to their names and give a reasoned and rational approach to all the Churchill worship. Winston was an arsehole, yes. He may have reflected the spirit of a wartime Britain, but he was still an arsehole. And there’s plenty of examples of this being a fair assumption – with most of them involving deaths, military catastrophes, or imperialist racism.
But here’s a shocker: you can still respect a historical arsehole regardless of their reputation.
Nostalgia is a powerful cultural force which pushes all Socratic debating to the floor, in favour of a black or white answer. For example, Karl Marx (whose memorial was vandalised for the second time on Saturday) was a writer and philosophical founder of an entire movement of politics. He was also a drunk, an adulterer, and leeched off Friedrich Engels for money and booze. Can he be blamed for the atrocities of Stalin? Probably not, let’s be honest. The people who spray-painted on his bust at Highgate Cemetery are foolish to think he was the cause of such barbarity. Marx was influenced by centuries of philosophy – so where does the buck stop?
And that’s just the thing, we’re looking for a historical message that may not have existed. The discussions surrounding No Deal Brexit, and all its apocalyptic potential, have waxed and polished nostalgia to a shiny relevant argument. People have listed the Blitz spirit and ‘Dig for Victory’ as evidence of how us plucky Brits could easily see off medicine and food shortages.
If you’ve read any Angus Calder you’ll know that the Blitz wasn’t a proud moment. Crime soared to incalculable levels, including murder and rape alongside smuggling charges. And as for the idea that we grew our food and did the Lambeth Walk to help the turnips grow quicker – it’s bollocks. We’d be stumped if we didn’t have the Atlantic convoys from the US supplying us with regular resources. But just you try to argue that to a ruddy-faced acolyte of Nigel Farage or Tim Smith.
Nostalgia is just like our historical interpretations. It’s beautiful and horrible in equal measure. We can look back on our childhoods and wish for those simpler days. Or, we can erect a statue to a myth – and worship it till it’s the truth.
The British are particularly good at myth-building, it’s in our nature to be taught brave stories of Waterloo and Rourke’s Drift.
In reality though, in 2019 – can’t we just move on?🔷
Liked this story?
Found it useful?
Here’s what you can do next:
(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com. | The author writes in a personal capacity.