England Ur-England: A Defense of British Nostalgia | James Himberger
As the looming no-deal Brexit casts its shadow over Great Britain, many left-wing critics blame nostalgia for poisoning the Sceptered Isle’s politics. The recent film “Brexit: The Uncivil War” depicts Dominic Cummings cynically promising referendum voters a return “to a time when everyone knew their place . . . real or not.” Even the common nickname for Brexiteers, “gammons,” (so-called because of their apparent resemblance to slabs of pork) evokes the classic Sunday roast, a staple of traditional English life.
Sam Byers, author of the recent novel Perfidious Albion, characterized British nostalgia as a medical malady in a recent New York Times op-ed. Byers writes that Britons have “retreated into the falsehoods of the past,” and “entered a haunted dreamscape of collective dementia—a half-waking state in which the previous day or hour is swiftly erased and the fantasies of the previous century leap vividly to the fore.” Byers argues that the only way for Britain to buck its post-Brexit malaise is to tear off its nostalgic attachments root and branch or else suffer a self-inflicted disaster.
These narratives about Brexit are fundamentally flawed. Rarely, if ever, do writers like Byers attribute agency to Brexit voters. Apparently, fifty-two percent of the British electorate (some seventeen million) were bamboozled by nostalgic fantasies. If not that, their choice to stick a monkey-wrench in the spokes of history was merely an expression of hatred for “others,” or the result of meddling by foreign billionaires, mischievous aristocrats, or some kind of algorithmic ooze created in a Russian laboratory. The European Union’s grave democratic deficit, inept handling of the migrant crisis, betrayal of parliamentary sovereignty, and continual accumulation of power are either undiscussed by such critics as reasons for the referendum’s outcome or dismissed as fig-leaves for nastier motivations or outright delusion.
Furthermore, Byers’ offers no plan for puncturing Britain’s inflated self-regard besides simply stating that Britons should be less nostalgic and more humble. However, one suspects that behind his calls for “humility” lies a desire for national self-flagellation. He points to protests against Churchill’s legacy and “colonized” school curricula as positive examples of the youth ditching imperial shibboleths. Yet, it’s hard to imagine how a post-colonial struggle session will cure the nostalgia disease. Will no-deal be suddenly averted if a band of woke iconoclasts tear down Nelson’s Column? Only then will Macron and Merkel ditch the backstop? I think not.
Even if nostalgia had a decisive hand in Brexit, why do many Britons feel intimately attached to their national past? Why might that be a good thing? An idealized England of yore captivated the imaginations of writers and poets like Shakespeare, Kipling, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Wodehouse, Eliot, and inspired the music of Vaughn Williams, Elgar, Holst, and Handel. Regardless of politics, on purely cultural grounds, British nostalgia deserves immense credit as a source of creative inspiration.
More importantly, nostalgia properly understood is not necessarily a negative impulse in politics, martialed against political change, but a dynamic vision of order driving national self-improvement and realization.
The central problem with British nostalgia is the tremendous weight of powerful, but sentimental imagery. The country house. The parish church. The village green. The cricket pitch. The Maypole. Roast beef. Teatime. Historians of British culture refer to this symbolic nexus as “Merry England,” an idealized recollection of England’s past. George Orwell captured it well, though with less rose-tinted glasses, when he described “the solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes” as “not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.” Similar variants of this kind of historical memory exist among the Scots and Welsh too.
What makes these elements of nostalgia characteristic and more than just treacly symbolism and picturesque landscapes is that they represent a thick understanding of community and belonging. The idealized Britain is a realm of ordered liberty buttressed by multiple authorities like voluntary associations, churches, labor unions, and culminating with the crown-in-parliament, representing each major estate and interest of the realm, at the top. There are different versions of this vision from across British history and among different political persuasions. But, the idealized “thick society” remains the same. Whether during the hazy days of the pagan Britons, the pastoral epoch of the Saxons, the harmony of the Medieval manor, the Georgian squirearchy, the Victorian village, or the cozy mid-century suburbs, the people of the Sceptered Isle have, for much of their history, valued community, social cohesion, and mild authority whatever the reality in practice.
These values continue to influence the twenty-first century. A recent study conducted by Onward, a center-right think tank, shows that British voters on the right and left are looking for a politics of “security” and “belonging,” in contrast to the liberationist ethos of the Thatcher-Blair era. Instead, many voters want government to focus on delivering better public services and protecting their communities from the economic and social pressures—urbanization, immigration, crime, family break-up—of contemporary life. A half-recovered memory of Merry England or a regional variant still resides in the minds of many Britons.
The leftist or progressive version of Merry England stresses community through equality. The Levellers and Diggers (two radical factions that sprung up during the English Civil Wars) harked back to the communal equality of the Saxon period, before the imposition of the “Norman yoke.” The Labour Party, at its founding in the late nineteenth century, was immersed in critiques of industrial modernity that left them on the same side as romantic conservatives like Carlyle, Ruskin, and Disraeli. William Morris, founder of the Socialist League, drew on the idyllic, agrarian communities of England’s past to weave a socialist vision of the future in his novel A Dream of John Ball. The left once saw Britain as a land of promise whose past contained the key to a fairer and more equal society. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the other hand, seems to view its own country as irredeemably tarred by the sins of capitalism, racism, and imperialism.
The right’s vision of community is more hierarchical and paternalistic. Benjamin Disraeli saw in the feudal society of the Middle Ages a dense network of hierarchical obligations between members of the aristocracy, clergy, and peasantry that he felt could be reproduced to fix the problems of industrialization. The prime minister’s view of the Medieval period was no doubt jaundiced, but it was helpful in promoting social reform. His two ministries were some of the most reform-oriented of the nineteenth century, passing numerous reforms in factory regulation, public health, recreational access, and voting rights. A similar view was cultivated by Disraeli’s ideological successors, most notably Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan, and, to a lesser extent, Winston Churchill.
The nostalgic medievalism that so defined Victorian life for both figures on the right and left, was not a plaintive lamentation for manorial life. On the contrary, it was an authentic expression of social criticism and reform.
In the same way, 21st century Britain should martial its own past and recover the vision of order that it represents. This will require clearer and more systematic thinking about how the communitarian spirit of Britain’s past manifested itself historically and how this relates to public policy. Both political traditions can get behind British nostalgia, and maybe, just maybe, recreate the shared language and symbolism that forges national unity and consensus. This is a constructive nostalgia that goes beyond wistful remembrance of “all our pomp of yesterday.” Byers may be right that the country is soaked in Downton Abbey kitsch, but the answer is not post-colonial self-evisceration. Instead, it is nostalgia rightly understood, a nostalgia re-formulated. And the British, as history shows, are no strangers to that.