Stuart Cartland

Stuart Cartland

Stuart Cartland is a lecturer in Humanities at the University of Brighton.

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:02

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.

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......
Wednesday, 04 July 2018 19:21

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......

Published in Sport

Stuart Cartland responds to Mark Perryman's article with a more cautious assessment of the potential for extracting progressive cultural meanings from the success of the England team.

As much as I want to believe in the positive force of seeing a strong and unified young multicultural English team do well at the Word Cup, as a symbolic metaphor for a modern, inclusive and progressive nation, I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the conservative right.

The metaphor of England beating other nations (and all nations that England play have some sort of symbolic ‘other’ about them) only serves to embolden a sense of English doggedness, separateness and fleeting superiority. In the current times of post-Brexit anxiety and continual economic and political crisis, the England team is used to represent a fantasy of England fighting against the odds and determining their own future.

Take a stroll into your nearest newsagents and see how the ever-reliable tabloids lap up these metaphors with gleeful jingoism. Time and again the tired old cliches and fetishes of war, empire and isolationism are dusted off when the England team play in major football tournaments. It’s as inevitable as a rail replacement bus, a hosepipe ban or the Germans doing well…Ooooh errrrrr.

Maybe, just maybe this time it will be different though – a faint hope I always have in times such as these. Never before has the England team represented such a youthful and multicultural image of England, a beacon of inclusivity, modernity and a last bastion of meritocracy in a society corrupt with nepotism and inequality.

However such obvious and strong metaphors, are quickly over-looked for the more familiar tub-thumping we are all familiar with and can expect or rather, have already witnessed. Regardless of who is playing for England, what dominates is the nationalistic default attachment of England’s glory to the good-old-days, a blitz spirit, bulldog spirit and how England needs only itself to determine its own future irrespective of the outcome – sound familiar?

How though can Labour or the left in general disrupt the dominant conservative narrative around cultural identity? Watching the now viral clip of Danny Dyer speaking about Brexit last week on the new Piers Morgan fronted TV show with fellow guest Jeremy Corbyn looking on, I couldn’t help but feel how his simple yet perfectly worded rant made Jeremy Corbyn look out of touch with a general mood, in that it’s left to someone like Danny Dyer to articulate genuine frustrations that politicians can’t or are unable to – and when they do attempt to it, it often looks contrived or off the mark.

In a similar way, if Corbyn and Labour tried to focus upon sport as a means to articulate a political or cultural struggle it is in very clear danger of ending up like the example that Mark Perryman gave of New Labour from 1996. Political manoeuvring around national teams often ends up looking like cheap and contrived bandwagon-jumping. In a wider sense ‘Cool Britannia’ and New Labour’s very purposeful rebranding of Britishness in the late 90’s also only served to solidify concepts of Englishness as the preserve of the conservative right. People are very wary of politicians trying to purposefully exploit sporting events, however sporting events are often used to manifest ideological sentiment – just think of Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. This is a good example of very clear inclusive and egalitarian sentiment expressed through a sporting occasion – but is a very rare and relatively successful example from the left.

The crux of the issue is that it is assumed and taken for granted that England (and it is particularly England for many reasons) doing well at sport (particularly football) is automatically linked to and co-opted by a particular and paradoxical type of nationalism. It’s a sort of default preserve of the right, a struggle that inclusive and radical concepts of national identity have always struggled with and against. This is clearly a deeper issue within our society, identity and dominant national narratives however, one that is constructed and can change. There is nothing natural about nationalism being inherently conservative or right wing,

How football is consumed and engaged with today has massively changed, it is the global game. Anyone watching the vibrant and good-natured mix of fans in Russia (yes, the place where we were warned not to go due to threats of extreme xenophobic violence) couldn’t help but be struck by the cosmopolitan feel of it all.

But even this international utopia of good will and the very clearly overwhelmingly working class and multicultural make-up of the England team is lost within the hubbub of England doing well (so far) at a major football tournament. Who the England team are what they can represent does have the potential to be a most powerful metaphor for the nation and a new sense of identity within a time of crisis and anxiety, but much like the potential of the team itself it never seems to be realised.