Stuart Cartland

Stuart Cartland

Dr. Stuart Cartland is a teaching Fellow at Sussex uni.

From citizen to consumer: the growing corporatisation of public space
Thursday, 27 April 2023 18:28

From citizen to consumer: the growing corporatisation of public space

Published in Cultural Commentary

The growing corporatisation of public space: From public good, to public as consumer.

Parks and public spaces are increasingly being used and situated as revenue generators whilst the public who uses them have become reimagined as consumer in these environments. Moreover, what we have witnessed over the last 20 years but increasingly so is the use of parks and other public spaces is an ideological shift in how we imagine the purpose of these vital resources, away from free to use locations for public good and well being to highly monetised income streams.

This is not happening within in some sort of abstract and coincidental manner, it is situated and indeed mirrors the insidious and creeping privatisation of our lives and the very spaces we inhabit. The increasing commercialisation of public spaces, which of course restricts free enjoyment (their original purpose and function) is located within a wider narrative and ideological dominance where public good is supplanted by privatised individualism.


This is also situated alongside projects of urban regeneration which have often spelt further intensified marginalisation of the urban poor, pushed away from city centres and relocated in the periphery. The dominant sociopolitical model of neoliberalism has given an impetus to these processes which has resulted in both the emergence of middle class gated communities but also class based exclusivity of prohibitively expensive events within public spaces whose interests are protected and forwarded by the state and supported by firmly established ideological discourses.

The brutal reality is that local councils and city authorities are increasingly pressurised to provide revenue streams and to monetise any available assets. This is firmly within the context of withering and continued cuts to public services and central government funding. Often using public spaces for commercial events is the only means for councils to make up for shortfalls in funds. However, the wider and more pressing point is that neoliberal dominance which has repositioned ideas around purpose, place and provision by government over the last 40 years or so has become so ingrained unquestioned, that it has been able to completely reconfigure how we view our urban environments and what we view as normal and acceptable. Moreover, this also operates within an increasingly divided and unequal public sphere where exclusivity is championed and co-operation and communal good is sidelined.


What we have witnessed is an assault on the accessibility and democratic utility of public space over recent years. From the huge increase in gated communities and the restrictive use of public areas, public parks, city squares, gardens, plazas and even streets are not immune to the privatisation and public-as-consumer mantra of contemporary neoliberalism. Indeed, Brighton’s recently remodelled and refurbished Valleys Gardens and Grand Parade (cost to public- £7.8m) being a prime example. Throughout the summer residents wanting to enjoy or access these spaces will have to contend with a multitude of exclusive and commercial events such as; Brighton Open Air Theatre, Brighton Fringe, Lady Boys of Bangkok let alone Brighton’s Preston Park which hosts the all fee paying events such as ‘Foodies Festival’, ‘Pride’ and ‘Pub in the Park’.

Increasingly public spaces have become locations of packed entertainment scheduling. Hyde park in London being a prime example of vital public space remodelled as an exclusive and prohibitively expensive consumer commodity. Their summer schedule includes a variety of exclusive and costly events such as; Bat Walk, LTA Youth Tennis Courses, ‘Hidden Stories of Hyde Park’, Swim Serpentine, Royal Parks Half Marathon and most notably the 10 day American Express Presents BST Hyde Park music extravaganza which consists of turning Hyde Park into Londons largest (and most expensive) outdoor open-air music venue.

However it is not just limited to the summer, most cities now use their public squares in the winter for open air ice-skating rinks and not to mention the perennial faux-German Christmas markets. There is no limit to the commercialisation of public space and parks in particular, for example a Tough Mudder commercial event in Finsbury Park in mid-April drew huge local criticism. Local Labour MP for nearby Tottenham, David Lammy  tweeted that he had been to the park and was “utterly appalled”, he also commented that “Finsbury Park is an inner city urban park and the damage done is an environmental disgrace”, he also said that “there are serious questions about how and why this license was granted, enforced and policed” (BBC News, 2023). Again, the point not necessarily being the damage and disregard to vital public spaces these events can cause (and often do), but the assumed and accepted narrative that this is the purpose of these spaces.


Policies and practices to ameliorate this renegotiation of public space would be the relatively easy part. For example introducing strict curbs on the number of days events can be held in each public area such as a specific park; strict regulations, penalties and fines for any damage or distress caused to public spaces; local consultation for proposed events; and of course greater government funding to local councils and authorities to deter the reliance upon an increased commercialisation of public space.

However, the most important point is that we must directly challenge and reject the neoliberal agenda that has permeated our understanding of use and utility of public spaces. That first and foremost the very purpose of public spaces like parks, gardens and squares is to provide free to use, open and accessible spaces for public good and well being, not as sites of commercial gain and profit that often excludes the very population these spaces are meant to serve. This is a big challenge as it requires us to rethink and reject the neoliberal agenda that has become so dominant not only within the realm of public space but throughout the wider social, cultural and political context.

I am not necessarily arguing against the diversified use of public space for fun events and entertainment, many of which are free to access, however, the main point being is the insidious and creeping corporatisation of public space from places of inclusive public good to exclusive commercialisation. This subject area goes to the heart of discussions and debates around who is the city for, and more particularly public space.

Conditioning the national discourse: self-censorship at the BBC
Wednesday, 15 March 2023 08:13

Conditioning the national discourse: self-censorship at the BBC

The news that the BBC will not broadcast an episode of the new David Attenborough flagship British wildlife documentary Wild Isles indicates the power of acceptable and established narratives that are so pervasive within our society.

The BBC has decided to not broadcast an episode of David Attenborough’s new wildlife series “because of fears its themes of the destruction of nature would risk backlash from Tory politicians and the rightwing press, the Guardian has been told” (Guardian, 2023). This indicates the power and reach of established discourse and narratives within British society, that an episode that looks at the stark loss of nature within the UK is deemed unacceptable to the degree that the BBC has self-censored itself for fear of backlash.

This clearly not only speaks volumes for the power of the rightwing press, Tory MP’s and political spokespersons, it also demonstrates how environmental destruction is framed as something that happens elsewhere, in the global south or by people who might be framed as less understanding of global environmental concerns. Indeed, when it comes to environmental destruction, degradation and decline the UK leads the way. We have one of the lowest levels of forest cover within Europe, let alone the world. We have lost all of our native apex predators long ago and there are very few places that are left to exist in a natural state outside of the demands of urbanisation, industrial farming or other such pressures such as the use of seemingly wild areas for the pursuit of pleasure based upon animal abuse.

Yet, when environmental catastrophe and destruction is mentioned or discussed it is often in terms of places such as the Amazon, India or other areas in the global south where western value judgements of environmental protectionism are applied often against populations who are framed as uncivilised or uncaring. Well-worn colonial narratives are used here that ‘we’ in the west or the UK are informed and care about the environment, whereas ‘them’ in the global south are ignorant and hell bent on environmental destruction. The point being that a mirror is never allowed to be held up to ourselves to see what we have done to our own natural environment.

There are very good reasons for this. We in the UK have a terrible record and do not hold ourselves to the standards we often apply to others across the world. Moreover, the conservative right in the UK dominate the ownership of the ‘natural’ environment and the discourse that surrounds it. For example, the creation and use of huge grouse moors across the country and the leisure industry that is based upon the catastrophic destruction of nature in these areas, from eradication of birds of prey, to the importation and rearing of millions of pheasants (a non-native species that also have been held accountable for huge negative effects upon the native British wildlife). These places are also enjoyed by, and often owned by the most powerful individuals in the UK. The intensive industrial farming techniques that have made biological deserts of much of the land and have led to the extinction of multiple species. The systematic destruction of native and ancient woodland at the expense for short-term economic growth held in the hands of a very few, and the extreme levels of land ownership by the very wealthy.

The context of this decision by the BBC must be taken into account. This comes in the same week that Gary Lineker was hounded by the rightwing press and government for making comments about the inhuman nature of the proposed government asylum policy. Clearly the BBC is feeling cowed that it – or at least one of its employees – has inadvertently made the right disgruntled. Indeed, this will also lead to further the narratives from the right that the BBC is some sort of left-leaning broadcaster.

However, Gary Lineker was making a personal tweet from a private account. Contrast this to when Jeremy Clarkson would regularly make often overt political statements and sexist and racist comments and insinuations on a regular basis within aired episodes of Top Gear, let alone anti-environmental proclamations.

What is also telling is that the new Wild Isles nature documentary is narrated and produced in the same vein as other flagship BBC documentaries such as the Blue Planet. This was held up at the time by Tory politicians such as Theresa May as an example of the high standard of the BBC at its very best. The difference being, not the standard or quality of documentary but the subject material.

Nevertheless, it is no wonder that the rightwing in the UK would be so reluctant for a nature documentary to highlight the plight of the natural world in the UK. It would uncover the vast scale of hypocrisy and double standards, as well as the feudal land ownership system that we have in the UK today.

Monday, 25 April 2022 09:19

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.

Tuesday, 06 July 2021 14:17

Statues, Context and Historical Narrative: Statues Glorifying Colonialism are a Bad Idea!

Published in Visual Arts

Stuart Cartland discusses the recent attacks on statues in Canada

The toppling of the statues of British monarchs in Canada recently is a hugely symbolic moment of reflection on the legacy of British colonialism. It is also feeding a wider anti-woke backlash from the right.

Following on from the toppling, and subsequent throwing of the Colston statue into Bristol harbour last year, the recent toppling of statues of British monarchs in Canada come as poignant, symbolic acts that coincide with the uncovering of hundreds of remains from the residential school system in Canada. These places sought to culturally assimilate indigenous children who were, more often than not, forced to attend. The toppling of these public monuments represents a reckoning with the very real horrors of colonialism and empire upon the First Nations people and seeks to challenge dominant narratives concerning the past.

We often walk past or don’t even recognise public statues. Who they are and what they represent are often so taken for granted and unchallenged that they are just part of a passive acceptance of social and cultural history. However, until one is defaced or toppled this prompts a contested ideologically motivated defence of what they might represent, and to who and if they should be celebrated or glorified at all. Indeed, for there to be a very large public statue of someone in a particular location this indicates a dominant and very public celebration of that person, what they did or an era they represent and a very particular narrative associated with them.

Statues are symbolic representations not objective fact, although this has been deliberately conflated by the political right. By the same token, history is not objective fact but reinterpretation of tenuous links to past events viewed through the prism of the contemporary world. Nevertheless, statues are rejected because what they symbolically represent is rejected. So a statue of Queen Elizabeth II is toppled in Canada in the twenty-first century not because she is a slave-owning, empire-promoting colonialist seeking to culturally obliterate or assimilate First Nations peoples, but because statues of British monarchs represent (in this case) colonialism – and not only that but the impact empire and colonialism had (and continues to has) upon First Nations people.

The toppling of these statues is thus a huge symbolic action which signifies a very public highlighting of the rejection of colonialism and racial injustice, highlights the hugely destructive legacy and impact colonialism and empire has had, and signifies an end to passive acceptance and glorification of British colonialism. For many, this challenges an accepted understanding of the past and structures of power in the present.

Although the political right will be outraged at the toppling and defacement of statues of British monarchs (past and present) the point isn’t necessarily a rejection of the British monarchy. Indeed, the Queen as head of state in Canada still carries much widespread support; nevertheless it is what these monarchs represent – a system of colonial power and abuse, the systematic destruction of indigenous culture and communities and the imposition of British rule and cultural assimilation. Moreover, the recent statue-toppling also symbolically represent the contemporary and overt rejection of ‘business as usual’ in terms of passive acceptance of British and colonial legacy as being ‘good’ – it was not and largely is still not good for First Nations people, not only in Canada but also other former colonial possessions such as Australia.

Again, this will be rejected by the right as woke revisionist madness and extremism. Any contemporary comment on a legacy of the British empire that is anything other than an over-simplified glorification is unacceptable. Yet this long-held and dominant narrative must be challenged for the mythological and ideological obfuscation that it represents. The uncovering of the remains in Canada of hundreds of indigenous victims of a colonial system of abuse and cultural genocide is not a shock, and comes on the back of the expansion into the mainstream dialogue of the BLM movement and a highlighting of the extremes of white supremacism and historical, systematic inequalities. These structural injustices must be exposed and challenged.

Cancel Enid Blyton! The familiar, tired tropes of GB News and anti-Woke media
Friday, 18 June 2021 12:11

Cancel Enid Blyton! The familiar, tired tropes of GB News and anti-Woke media

Stuart Cartland on Conservative populism and anti-Woke TV: how the launch of GB News represents updated versions of familiar, tired tropes.

GB News represents an updated version or equivalent to the familiar and well-worn tropes of anti-political correctness of previous years. The political right dominates British media outlets and the political terrain within England in particular, and GB News symbolises the massive right-wing anti-Woke backlash that we have witnessed in recent times, particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement.

It has long been a social and political theme of the right to attack by projecting a sense of being under attack, and thereby reassert dominant ruling-class hegemony. Familiar themes (or rather fantasies) and tropes are wheeled out such as ‘common sense’ and the ‘ordinary person on the street’, which are positioned as being under attack from an aggressive sense of moral modern political correctness and inclusivity. It is also implied that a particular way of national life or culture is somehow under attack, or at risk of being cancelled and erased.

Cancel Enid Blyton!

Turn on GB News and many things might grab your attention, however as with all right-wing media outlets hyperbolic claims or headlines are their stock-in-trade in terms of gaining attention and firing up the audience. On my very first glance I was not disappointed. Enid Blyton, a popular twentieth century children’s writer and paragon of British cultural dominance was headlined: ‘Enid Blyton to be cancelled’.

Headlines for stories such as ‘Enid Blyton to be cancelled’ represent two crucial elements of conservative right-wing populism, nostalgia and a sense of being under attack. Increasingly over recent years (but a common theme of the political right for a long time) there is a sense of social and cultural decay and a pining for times of past glory or ‘the good old days’.

Social or cultural elements that appeal to an older generation in terms of childhood are said to be under attack by an updated P.C police. This acts to enrage but also create a myth of how things were better back then, when you could say what you liked or thought, where everyone was white and spoke English. This also has wider links and connotations to a sense of national glory, dominance and empire. These are all ideologically created myths, but are presented as reality, as truth.

The ‘Cancel Enid Blyton’ myth shows how ruling-class cultural hegemony works. Even according to English Heritage her work is racist and xenophobic. But although what she represents has no place in twenty-first century British society, GB News – just like all other right-wing commentators and mouthpieces – uses these ideological myths to make sense of the present, to deny the racism, sexism and other catastrophic problems we face such as massive social and economic inequality and environmental disaster. The suggestion is that these problems are somehow being foisted upon us, not that we have a responsibility to tackle them. Outlets like GB News promote denial of these fundamental challenges, and also uses them as a tool to prove how the mythical ordinary person of the street and common sense are under attack, and that Great British culture and history is at risk of being cancelled. The message is that luckily for you ,GB News is here to speak up and resist this outrage.

Within this very purposeful ideological re-organisation and over-simplification of the world, there is also the veneer of post-Brexit triumphalism alongside the paradox of a failure of Brexit promises and reality. Again, it is suggested that forces in the modern world have undermined Brexit, but also that Brexit represents a triumph of common sense and a rejection of the forces of modernism.

GB News symbolises an approach to news which is very Farage-esque (indeed, he was one of the first invited guests on the channel), a two-fingers-up to those politicians and a wider society which is pandering to Woke inclusivity. It follows the oft-repeated claims of left-wing bias in the media and particularly against the BBC, which are never substantiated with evidence. It crucially reinforces the familiar and well-worn narrative of left-wing bias, and a society that is dominated by a cosmopolitan, gay, Muslim, black, disabled, female agenda.

GB News has deliberately and proudly positioned and labelled itself as being anti-Woke. Its opening days were beset by continual technical problems and incompetence, yet on its opening day it gained more viewers than BBC News or Sky News. This symbolism can’t be overlooked, it represents an ideologically motivated attempt to dominate public opinion with reactionary, anti-Woke themes. These themes have also been articulated by a host of senior Conservative politicians, and rest on a pernicious mixture of utter incompetence and familiar, tired tropes powered by fantasy and blame.


Wednesday, 26 August 2020 14:31

Rule Britannia and the shameful arrogance of right-wing class politics

Published in Music

Stuart Cartland criticises the jingoistic response to the BBC's decisions about Rule Britannia. 

If as a nation we are to be serious about addressing racism and legacies of oppression then the recent furore about the possibility of dropping Rule Britannia from the BBC's Last Night of the Proms is a very serious indication of how little change has been made and how far we have to go.

Let’s be absolutely clear here, a song that glorifies empire and the systematic subjugation of millions of people should not just be viewed as outdated and distasteful but instead as shameful. Indeed, it should be viewed much as Deutschland Über Allës is viewed within Germany, the outrageous racial connotations it implies and the shameful nationalistic context it is from.

The problem here is that those on the right have always viewed Britain and its related traditionalism as being an exception. Empire and colonialism are part of the very qualities that many conservatives and nationalists are proud and boastful of however this jingoistic facade is untenable especially as these very qualities directly include the slave trade and the annihilation of millions of subjugated peoples around the world who were in the vast majority had brown skin.

Again, Rule Britannia is not just an outdated, ill-fitting song for the twenty-first century that jingoistic nationalists and traditiono-philes might point to when imagining a sense of a mythical past of British greatness, it is a song that actually refers to slavery, this is within the context of the pioneering world slave trading nation – Great Britain! This is ‘not just a song’ a ‘bit of pomp’ or harmless, this is a cultural and political barometer. 

Of course, this has been an absolute boon to the right-wing press and the political populism of political-correctness-gone-mad. However what this does is actually uncover how the mainstream right and Tory types like Boris Johnson really feel in terms of a cultural reckoning in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, beyond any superficial tokenistic slogans and PR induced platitudes.

Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly stated in response that:

it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, about our culture, and we we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.

Of course it is easy for him to make these crass claims when it is his sense of tradition, culture and history under the spotlight – but this is partly the point. This shameful arrogance of class and racially based identity politics, situated within a history or exploitation, subjugation and a misplaced sense of glory and pride, is woefully outdated and shameful – but also deeply offensive.

It shows how much of Britain is still unwilling to fully comes to terms with the reality of empire and move away from the tired and inadequate conservative right-wing narrative of pomp and glory.

If we are to be serious in confronting social and cultural oppression in its many forms, then what better way start than confronting a sense of self-inflated nationalistic sense of arrogance and entitlement. Of course, the problem being here is that these are exactly the qualities of those who are in power in this country and those that are controlling the narrative on this very issue. Until then songs that glorify empire, subjugation and oppression will have a place in twenty-first century Britain.

The countryside, class and culture
Monday, 01 June 2020 08:46

The countryside, class and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stuart Cartland looks at the cultural and political representation of topography, at how landscape becomes mythscape, expressing class power and national identity. The painting is Mr and Mrs. Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough, about 1750

As the fine weather and easing of coronavirus restrictions are upon us, many will be wanting to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. But beware, the countryside is not a neutral space - are you entering a cultural domain where you are even welcome?

There is nothing natural or even legitimate to the social and cultural exclusivity that the English countryside has come to represent, yet the seemingly timeless narrative of traditionalism and conservatism has become well established cultural tropes. The dominant conservative evocation of Englishness draws heavily from an emotive and evocative imagery based around landscape. 

It is an idealised England (and Englishness) which is viewed as both being under attack from and ignored by the marauding forces of modernity and alterity. It is typically rural, middle to upper-middle class, and associated with the south (the basic formulation to understanding the conservative and right-wing position and perspective in regards to Englishness). As Wright elaborates, “it possible to argue that this version of a green and pleasant England persists in the Conservative psyche today. Indeed, the nearer one gets to the grassroots of contemporary Toryism in England, the nearer one gets to this puritanical discourse, and the defensiveness and paranoia that go with it”.

There is clearly nothing political or ideological about the English countryside per se. Indeed, it commands a critical sense of importance to many different and disparate political, social, historical and cultural movements and ideologies such as the Levellers and the Diggers, Orwell, Blake, Morris and the campaign for the right to roam typified by the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, all associated more with the English left, radicalism and socialism. However, it is the hijacking and ideological manipulation of the subject matter, coupled with the constructed and constantly reinforced political and cultural meanings that equate rural England to conservatism and traditionalism.

SC Kinder Scout mass trespass

Kinder Scout Mass Trespass

It is also the attached and attributed symbolism that places a mythological idealised concept of rural England at the heart of conservative and traditional notions of Englishness, which has become synonymous with a sense of English national identity and what it represents. As Mark Perryman highlights, “the temptation to retreat into an unchanging past, a theme park for an old country is strong, offering security versus global risk and the comfort blanket of the familiar”. In a prevailing contemporary climate of crisis, threat, insecurity and uncertainty, such a position has become the dominant, legitimised position.

Cultural and ideological representations of topography are crucial to understanding a conservative discourse of Englishness. A timeless and enduring idolisation of place, culture, class and tradition are bound in a romanticised ‘mythscape’. However, this is one which is man-made and ideologically created. Idealised topographical representations articulate a moral and national narrative which relates to the present. This draws upon national anxieties and contributes towards an illusory sense of hegemony in an age of rapidly changing boundaries and realities.

Landscape can be viewed as the location of ideological clashes of fantasy, desire and anxiety. The conservative and traditionalist mythscape plays upon concepts of the North of England as symbolising the stereotypical working-class, industrial cityscapes whilst the South representing a middle and upper-class idyll of English country gardens. The timeless pastoral green dream of tranquillity and social order however is an illusion, often imposed to obscure what we actually see or encounter. As Robert MacFarlane (2015) describes it, this can be called ‘landscape culture’. It is an idealised notion of ‘dwelling’, ‘belonging’ and ‘heritage’ that needs to be seen through the “turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism”.

A contemporary period foisting such ‘alien’ ideas as political correctness or multiculturalism, challenging ‘our’ sovereignty and ignoring the interests of the moral majority. It forms the raison-de-etre to political campaigns and movements such as the Campaign for an English Parliament, UKIP and the English Democrats. The English countryside as an elite ideological domain resonates with conservative traditionalists not because it draws upon an exhaustive list of characterisations but rather an attitude.

This defensive definition of Englishness is formulated through a bitter awareness that the world is charging headlong in the opposite direction. It is a defensive narrative of retreat and denial. The English countryside has become symbolic as a last-ditch effort to defend against encroaching modern forces. This can be seen in the contemporary context by traditionalist concepts of Englishness against issues such as gay marriage, the banning of blood sports, environmental concerns, and gender equality.

The countryside has played an important part in the English imagination particularly since the Industrial Revolution. The origins of conservative traditionalism linked to the countryside can be traced throughout modern English social and cultural history, from Cobbett’s ‘rural rides’ in the 1820s to the popularity of the National Trust after the Second World War. Specific examples typify such a conceptualisation of a romantic and nostalgic England which feeds into contemporary politicised (and often reimagined and manipulated) notions. For example, Edmund Burke’s ‘Little Platoons’ in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) and the social and cultural reactionary conservatism not only in regards to the perceived threat of foreign political revolutionary fervour but the political and ideological anti-establishmentarianism contained within such a threat.

William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ (set to music by Parry in 1915), is a direct antithesis to the dark, gritty, industrialised cities of the Midlands and the North of England. William Morris’s notion of a future, rural utopia in ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890), with the banishment of industrialised city living to the history books. Rudyard Kipling’s idealised Sussex of ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ (1917) and the wider idea of a, “psychological retreat to the English countryside” (Marsden, 2000:26) to a rural England in contrast to the mechanised and industrialised warfare of the first and second world wars. Stanley Baldwin’s (1924) ‘long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers’. George Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) of ‘old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’, and G.K Chesterton’s famous lines, “smile at us, pay us, pass us but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”.

The English countryside has become synonymous with representations of conservationism which have often led to cultural conservatism. This has created a rural nostalgia culture industry of country dwellers clad in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, with Range Rovers and barn conversions, steeped in the cultural and political domain of the Cotswoldian elite rolling around in pastoral clichés. It is an England represented as a historicised rural idyll, embodied by a sense of timeless and naturalised tradition and place. Victorian poets and writers (Wordsworth and Coleridge), artists (Turner and Constable) and composers (Elgar, and latterly Britten) all employed to help perpetuate this ideologically evocative version of a decidedly green and pleasant land.

The countryside has firmly become established within contemporary English culture as the cultural domain of the middle and upper classes, where they play the role or act as the only legitimate form of authority, expression and belonging. These roles refer to assumed norms of deference to the conservative ‘country folk’ where feudalism never really went away. The countryside represents the domain of the wealthy, who literally buy into an idealised and sanitised ‘escape to the country’ of chocolate box images of quaint villages and a bucolic escape from ethnic minorities, multiculturalism, political correctness, the Labour Party, council estates, Primark and the like. Indeed this can be understood through the almost impossible task of trying to find a pub in the country that hasn’t been converted into the most ubiquitous form of contrived exclusivity - the gastropub.

These aren’t just pubs catering to the wealthy elite who escape to the country for weekend leisure pursuits of animal abuse, but rather operate as a means to sell the lifestyle choice - that to patronise their establishment you are or can become one of them, part of the country elite, and so inhabit and experience this mythscape of upper-class country lifestyle. 

Nevertheless, these are largely superficial expressions of ideology repackaged and resold as lifestyle choice. Doubtless, the countryside can be a pleasant place of rolling hills and blue skies, and by and large it is not an exclusive domain full of Tories. But that is the point - it has been commandeered through the cultural domain as such… so as you venture out after the lockdown, good luck with finding a pub that hasn’t been converted into a shrine to this particular form of cultural hegemony!