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 anti–imperial: 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.