The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture
Saturday, 30 May 2020 11:23

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.

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Saturday, 30 May 2020 11:23

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.