Pounds, Ounces and Nostalgia

I’m trying to interest newspapers in short articles to whet the appetite for my new book when it comes out next month. I’m told they should ideally be hooked on to news items of the day. So here’s one I’ve sent to the Indy. No reply yet!

A government push to boost the use imperial measurements after Brexit will bring British “culture” back into shops, a minister has claimed. (Independent 31 May.)

‘British culture’, eh? As if that can be measured in pounds and ounces. Or in acres, rods, poles, perches, gallons, pints, shillings, half-crowns and pence. Really the ‘culture wars’ have sunk pretty low, haven’t they, if that’s the best they can come up with? At most it appeals to a superficial sort of nostalgia, which has very little to do with the essentials of the national history the nostalgists [ed: is that a word?] clearly want to return to.

Such reactionary musings – which were a factor in the Brexit debate too – are scarcely surprising, considering the losses that people feel they have suffered over the last couple of decades or so. For some – those whom Jeremy Paxman has colourfully dubbed the ‘harrumphers’ – it was nostalgia for the days when Britain was supposed to have ‘ruled half the world’, and only comprised ‘white’ people. For others it was a longing for the security and promise of Labour’s welfare state, whose erosion since Thatcher’s time seemed to be leaving them at the mercy of cruel ‘market forces’.

But if they really want to return to the past, the nostalgists need to get their history right. At present it relies on selective and superficial memories of a past that was far more complex and contested than they make it seem. For example: Britain has always been multicultural, as well of course as multi-national; religiously divided; riven by class and gender; with both capitalist and socialist traditions, and even Fascist (certainly proto-fascist) elements in its politics; republican as well as royalist; deeply divided by wealth and education; imperial, of course – that ‘half the world’ boast: wrong, of course, and in any case a trait Britain shared with most other European countries – but also antiimperial: an ideology that could even be said to have been invented by the British, as imperialism was not. And that’s not to mention the darker sides of Britain’s past, which the nostalgists might not want to revive (or would they?): like capital and corporal punishment, unnecessary wars, colonial atrocities, institutionalised racism and sexism, and dull English food.

And while they’re at it, nostalgists might like to take on board certain other values that were once thought to be essentially and exclusively ‘British’, but are less recognised or celebrated today. These include welcoming immigrants indiscriminately; the absolute right of asylum; probity and honesty in government; genuine press freedom; internationalism (all those ‘citizens of nowhere’ Theresa May was so dismissive of); and the absence of ‘continental’ methods of policing: especially espionage.

Blue (or blue-ish) passports and pounds and ounces, surely, are as nothing compared to these. Which is not to say that any of them should be privileged over any of the others, by those who want to take Britain ‘back’; but only that ‘British culture’, even rooted in its history, goes beyond pounds and ounces, and is more complex and contentious, and in some ways more modern, than nostalgists tend to assume.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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7 Responses to Pounds, Ounces and Nostalgia

  1. NotGoingBack says:

    As far as the soon to be reintroduced halfpenny coin goes (metaphorically speaking), the myth of ‘liberal England’ is one side and ‘little England’ is another and the ‘good’ British values listed above are just as illusory as Boris’ reactionary version. With all due respect to Professor Porter’s groundbreaking research on imperialism and political policing in Britain, the notion that the values of ‘welcoming immigrants indiscriminately; the absolute right of asylum; genuine press freedom; [and] internationalism’ were ever anything other than the preserve of small political subcultures, on the one hand, and of privileged educated middle and upper-class elites, on the other — elites who, it must be noted, professed and discarded said values as the moment demanded; the political trajectory of Winston Churchill, from fin-de-siecle pro-immigrant liberal to post-war “swamp” peddler is very far from singular in this respect — this notion is merely an article of faith (good faith, I have no doubt, but faith nonetheless) on the part of Prof. Porter and one which is not really borne out by historical fact. The English ‘man in the street’ of the last two centuries or more was and continues to be, even in a multicultural and multiracial society, closer in thinking to the populist bromide presently corroding the last remnants of our welfare-state-of-disrepair than to any rose-tinted ‘socialist traditions’. Contempt for ‘continental methods of policing: especially espionage’? Only briefly in the mid nineteenth century and only in a hypocritical and xenophobic, particularly anti-French, way (as Prof. Porter knows all too well), not out of any genuine bleeding-heart conviction; at least not for the vast majority of law-abiding ‘I’m alright Jack’ British subjects.
    Boris is certainly increasingly on thin ice and bringing back ‘imperial measures’ does sound like a gag out of an abortive never-aired sitcom, but is there a supposedly ‘progressive’ past to take refuge in or to hold up as a glorious heirloom to the Brexiteers (who couldn’t give a monkey’s about actual history anyway)? No; no, there very much isn’t. If we must revive anything from the distant past, it should perhaps be the notion of nostalgia as a form of mental illness.


  2. mickc says:

    Interesting review…and interesting comments. It is, possibly, surprising how much people get wound up by history, but then Orwell may have been…was…right about how to control the present, and future.
    Did you ever review any of Correlli Barnett’s “Decline and Fall” series? I should be grateful for any views you can share on the Barnett/Edgerton disagreement about the course of the British “Empire”


  3. mickc says:

    As I understand the proposal, it is permissive, not compulsive. In short, if sellers wish to sell in pounds and ounces, or buyers wish to buy in pounds and ounces, they can. I really can’t see any problem with that. The seller will likely try to oblige the customers or lose trade. Many older people are comfortable with those quantifications; I certainly am, but actually wish the UK had adopted the metric system after WW2. They, and I, are not “harrumphers”, which is basically a public school boy jibe at the “lower orders” as might be expected from Paxman.

    There really is very little nostalgia for Britain’s “imperial past”. As you have pointed out, the Empire was not of huge concern to most of the British people…the “common people ” were, and are rather busy trying to get on, or plain survive to indulge in such stuff. It is the fantasy of others, and probably their “comfort blanket” to believe that to be the case.

    The same applies to “Partygate”. The MSM are infatuated with it; it’s yesterday’s news and today’s fish and chip papers. What people are concerned about is the cost of living ie food and energy. It is those which will torpedo Bojo, not Partygate. But Labour went along with “net zero” anyway, so a difficult circle to square…

    The nostalgists, if they really exist, are few. The common people are many and they are actually concerned about their rights. In particular, they want to keep the right to sack their rulers…hence Brexit.


    • If the proposed restoration of imperial measures is to be merely voluntary, then it will make no difference to the status quo. We’re already allowed to used these measures; it’s only the Express and Mail that have been claiming that the EU banned them. So why make a song and dance about it? Have you ever heard anyone ordering a half-litre of Best in a pub? And incidentally, when Paxman coined the word ‘harrumphers’ he was directing it at the upper classes, not the ‘lower orders’ (in his ‘imperial’ book, which I reviewed).

      Liked by 1 person

      • mickc says:

        I think you are wrong…hence Thoburn v Sunderland. And yes I know that pints are still used in pubs but imagine this is a specific derogation from the overall law.

        I haven’t read Paxman’s imperial book but have read his book about the English which made some interesting points. Where can I find your review?


      • Here’s the Paxman review: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/05/empire-ruling-world-paxman-review. Sorry I’m not familiar with Thoburn v. Sunderland – I’ll Google it – but we all know, don’t we? that we could always have had blue passports if we’d wanted in the EU; together with crown marks on beer glasses, and much else; and that we still measure distances in miles, without the EU police coming down on us. – I disagree with you, incidentally, over Partygate – and so do opinion polls. Because it affected everyone so directly – unable to say goodbye to dying relatives, for example – it is of concern to people still, colouring their views on the more practical issues.

        Liked by 1 person

      • mickc says:

        Thanks for the link…I will read it when I get home after work.
        I agree that many people are furious about the consequences of lockdown…with which I disagreed, Sweden got it right…and I am myself as I couldn’t say goodbye to a dear friend…but the feeling in the factory where I work is as I reported. Yes I know it’s just a local, personal experience but my feeling is that it’s quite common, notwithstanding opinion polls.
        The cost of living problems are real, now…and going to get worse. To paraphrase Neil Kinnock “if Boris Johnson is the answer, it’s a bloody stupid question”…however the same applies to Starmer who is allegedly the Leader of the Opposition…


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