Friday, 23 February 2024 03:09

Same old same old: Downton Abbey and the reactionary construction of exclusive Englishness

Stuart Cartland argues that Downton Abbey is a conservative ideological vehicle that is far more than just a harmless, jolly romp

With the upcoming release of the new Downton Abbey movie in cinemas it’s time to look a little more closely at what this movie might actually represent – a very thinly veiled ideological construction of a conservative English utopia. Moreover, it is an overt representation of a very conservative and traditionalist national identity, operating through the guise of escapism and through the prism of a very particular socio-political construction of nostalgia.

Obsession with nostalgia is nothing new in the UK. However, what I am highlighting here is that big screen (or small screen) spectacles like the new Downton Abbey movie represent the construction of a mythical golden era to which only the very privileged few are granted access. It is a construction that operates as a conservative antidote to the realities of modern society where the working class can vote, women have a voice and people of colour are more than just tokenistic entertainers pandering to the whims of high society.

The movie resonates with conservative and traditionalist identity politics, which are informed and shaped by appeals to a particular type of nostalgia. Thus in September 2021 John Whittingdale (Minister of State for Media and Data) delivered a speech laying out the government’s reasons for privatising Channel 4, and said that the Conservatives will look to introduce requirements for public service broadcasters to introduce “distinctively British” content. Whittingdale, a strong supporter of Brexit and the privatisation of Channel 4, noted that shows such as Downton Abbey reflect “Britain and British values”.

The cosy familiarity of Englishness

At the heart of this conservative form of British values or Englishness is a vague sense of familiarity, or as Charlie Brooker sarcastically remarked, “the cosy familiarity of a world in which you could walk down an English high street without your ears getting bunged up with foreign accents, unless someone was doing a hilarious Gunga Din voice in order to mock the waiter in a curry house”.

Within this context, unsayable political and social commentary from the right becomes the sayable. It is repeated across the media, becoming part of an established wider discourse. A cosy world of scrapbook images of pre-woke, pre-political correctness, traditional values and authority, social hierarchies and ‘common sense’, is a world many may want to return to.

Althusser, Marx and Gramsci defined ideology as a body of norms and ideas that appear natural as a result of their continuous and mostly tacit promotion by the dominant forces in society. Conservative and traditionalist concepts of English national identity operate like this: ideological concepts of social hierarchies are linked to a narrative of tradition and a specific historicisation and subjective interpretation, and national identity is constructed by moving from the present into the past and locating the past in the present. England is thus nostalgically represented as the country of class privilege, social inequality, and a whitewashed selective and an ethno-nationalist sense of nation and citizenship, an illusion which is far removed from the realities of multiculturalism, sexual and racial equality in law, cosmopolitanism, urbanisation, urban decay, post-imperialism and a process of accelerated globalization.

This is how things are

Conservative accounts thus become normalized and dominant.. Narrative becomes the main form of what Gramsci referred to as cultural production, which comes to embody values and norms and establishes a hegemony or monopolisation of a conceptual field within a wider consciousness. An established social order is historically presented as a ‘way of doing things’, and becomes naturalised and made into the way ‘things really are’.

‘Common sense’, and ‘rational’ become synonymous with the conservative and traditionalist approach. Any deviation is presented as ‘radical’ or ‘illegitimate’ and the dominant narrative is disseminated through ideologically compatible media, social and cultural outlets. A liberal democratic understanding is brushed aside in favour of a conservative and traditionalist social and political approach.

The success of Downton Abbey is just one example of this. It operates as an ideological and socio-political conduit and conveyer in plain sight. Easily batted away as just good fun or good escapist entertainment, it actually normalizes a social and political history that is about Empire, aristocracy, the monarchy, the established church and deference to a very rigid and exclusive class hierarchy. This clearly chimes with a Tory view of history, culture and society, and on the myth of a benevolent elite granting carefully managed change.

A highly managed sense of cultural and historical continuity is essential when fostering a dominant account of English national identity. Indeed, national identity is not some essentialised badge which people carry around with them. It is the result of a complex interaction between historical memories, current social, political and cultural processes, and people’s own predilection for self-identification. It is also part of what can be called ‘mythscape’: the temporarily and spatially extended realm wherein the struggle for control of people’s memories and the formation of nationalist myths is debated, contested and subverted incessantly.

We English are great and you don’t belong here

The conservative and traditionalist narrative of Englishness is a romantic dream, based upon a fantasy of greatness. A romantic sense of greatness is also associated with a sense of uniqueness, purpose, entitlement and leadership.

Through symbolic representations of culture, tradition and class like Downton Abbey, a conservative perspective and ideological narrative seeks to explain the meaning of Englishness at a time of rapid historical, social and cultural change, one which has undermined the authority of tradition, place, and so-called ‘past glories’. As Stuart Hall stated:

“a shared national identity depends on cultural meanings which bind each member individually into the large national story…The national heritage is a powerful source of such meanings. It follows that those who cannot see themselves reflected in the mirror cannot properly belong”.

Indeed, those who cannot see themselves reflected in the screen cannot properly belong and therefore those politically and culturally specific constructions of national heritage, cultural meaning, relevance and identity purposely exclude those who do not fit in with traditionalist images of the nation.

In an age of ‘being competitive in a global market place’ and ‘brand image’, politicians, mainly but not only Conservatives, try to manipulate the past to sell a wholesome picture of England domestically and internationally, one that is detached from a reality that most of us can relate to. The contested meaning of national identity in an increasingly globalized world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, Brexit and large-scale immigration has required a feverish construction of image built upon an ideological myth.

The England sold to the world – and more importantly to the English –is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels – the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust’s stately homes, Waitrose and farmers’ markets. TV programmes which help build this cultural narrative as well as Downton Abbey include Victoria, Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat, the Great British Bake-off, Location, Location, Location, and Poldark. In the cinema, films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park, the Young Victoria, the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, The Queen et al also seek to represent an aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within historical ‘golden eras’. 

This sort of cultural nostalgia and fantasising operates as a counter narrative and conservative antidote to contemporary cultural reflections such as the BLM and the challenge to public monuments that celebrate slave traders, not to mention wider concerns around gender based violence and institutionalised racism. It also plays upon a nostalgic sense of loss, a loss felt not only in terms of identity but also in terms of a particular mode of living, associated with place, class, lifestyle and values.

A world where people knew their place

Despite the conservative and rightwing claims that the media has a leftwing bias, Downton Abbey is a long running television show and movie franchise that is directed by Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes, a Conservative peer of the House of Lords and a firmly established member of the aristocracy. Simon Schama has described Downton Abbey as a “silvered tureen of snobbery” based on an overtly right wing novel by Evelyn Waugh that celebrates country houses, the upper class and a nostalgia for a world where “people knew their bloody place”. He also commented that, “nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia”. Critical comments like that are a reaction to the overwhelming amount of television based upon a cultural dash to an imaginary sanctum of certainties, of a social and cultural world built upon rigid inequalities.

Downton Abbey and other TV programmes and films are culturally exclusive: they deliberately exclude those who do not fit the constructed, traditionalist images or values of the nation. Such mythical cultural representations have no relevance to the experience of the majority of the population – but the danger lies not only in the fact that politicians and public figures sell this image but that the electorate or the viewer might actually buy into it.

Friday, 23 February 2024 03:09

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stuart Cartland argues that the Conservative victory is based on their control of the national narrative, achieved partly through control of popular cultural experiences

It must be understood that it is not just the message of ‘get Brexit done’ that provided such an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives, although that is what it clearly appears to be. As surprising at the Conservative victory might seem to many, particularly where the Conservatives picked up the votes to win in traditional Labour strongholds, elections are not won on practical manifesto pledges but rather through dominating the national narrative, including dominance through the control of cultural experiences.

This dominance has been the culmination of an overwhelming control of a symbolic national narrative dictated and controlled by the conservative right. Practicalities of politics matter little here. The point being that key right-wing conservative tropes of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric have become the common ground of British politics and a sense of national narrative, particularly within England. This has been an ongoing process and theme through a conservative cultural dominance that arguably made the Conservative victory almost an inevitability.

Since the Conservatives came into power under David Cameron, and probably even before this, there has been an ongoing reinvention and reinforcement of an experience of the mythical majority. The booming cultural industries, dominated by themes of nostalgia and national experience, have shifted the cultural imagination and a national narrative.

For example, the last 10 years have witnessed a cultural shift on the small and big screen of historical dramas, for example: Downton Abbey, Poldark, Call the Midwife, Victoria, The Queen et al, in which a very specific ideological narrative has been spun (a pre-politically correct, multicultural or liberal landscape). Ideological perspectives and cultural narratives such as conservative traditionalism and a discursive dominance go hand-in-hand with political dominance. It becomes a naturalised and normalised manner in which to imagine the nation, it is also a cultural perspective that has monopolised what national imaginings might be in an era of increasingly defensive nationalism such as the reterritorialising of British cultural politics within the context of a process of disengagement from Europe and devolution.

Moreover, the past 10 years has also seen a shift in a process of memorialisation as a form of conservative nationalism. This can be seen in the ideologically situated use of symbolic commemoration characterised by historicised cultural pastiche and revitalised nationalism, for example through the WWI centenary commemorations and the ongoing politicisation of the symbolic use of the poppy.

Bringing this back to the recent election, the key point is that Johnson represents this symbolic narrative, much like Trump does in the US. Regardless of how untrustworthy, contradictory, offensive and inappropriate he may have proven himself to be, and regardless of scandal after scandal, Johnson (much like May) represents the symbolic social and political discursive conservative dominance within England of a national narrative and imagination. It was the Conservatives' dominance of this national imagination, not the individual figure, that won the election.

For huge swathes of England voting for the Conservatives is an act of willing self-harm, but this proves how utterly encompassing the conservative message and dominance has become. Regardless of how (in practical terms) a Labour government would benefit the majority of the population and conversely how detrimental a Conservative majority will be, ‘get Brexit done’ is the symbolic representation of a conservative national imagination rather than the rather hollow and meaningless message it might seem on the surface.

In terms of policy the Conservatives offered very little in the election but they didn’t need to. The Johnson victory is the culmination and consolidation of several years of  Conservative cultural and ideological dominance, particularly within England, of the national narrative.

Friday, 23 February 2024 03:09

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

Published in Cultural Commentary

With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.