The old days and the new

Nationalism is resurgent. The past is no longer gone, but has become a political rallying cry. The progress of decades is being pushed steadily into retrograde. But you know all this already. The question is, should we blame heritage?

The unexpected success of the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union sent many people into a spin of sudden national introspection. The roots of isolationism run deep into the backdrop of Britain’s economic and political scene, but the cultural side is in the spotlight too.

Just as scholars climbed aboard their academic soapboxes during the Conservative 1980s to condemn a nostalgic attachment to the past which lauded Britain’s role while ignoring history’s victims, so the quantification of xenophobia in Britain provided by the vote for Brexit has highlighted how nationalism is fed by pervasive myths of superiority and national destiny.

‘nostalgia filters out unpleasant aspects of the past, and of our former selves, creating a self-esteem that helps us to rise above the anxieties of the present. Collectively, nostalgia supplies the deep links that identify a particular generation; nationally it is the source of binding social myths.’ – Hewison (1987) The Heritage Industry

Why, we ask, is Britain’s empire suddenly, again, a source of pride rather than guilt? Why are Agincourt, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain more important to our sense of self than the slave trade, mass importing of overseas workers to plug a labour shortage in the 1950s, or any other of the myriad stories which suggest that Great Britain has been more exploitative than glorious; that the heroes of history are those who defend and welcome the marginalised?

Image of headline from the Sunday Times November 17 2017: 'Britain will restore a proper sense of patriotism'
‘Traditionalist’ conservative Roger Scruton argues that British history and EU membership are incompatible

The idea of ‘taking back’ control, of ‘returning’ to an idealised past, was pervasive in the Leave campaign. It has been suggested that rapid social change in the twentieth-century left many older voters feeling alienated from modern norms and wishing for a return to their youth. But the rose-tinted glasses of half a century do not explain the longer-term historical narrative: the myth that Britain has been isolated, strong and (sorry) stable throughout history, ignoring the many collaborations, defeats, and embarrassments which inevitably pepper every nation’s timeline. See, for example, the controversy sparked by classicist Mary Beard when she pointed out – entirely accurately – that there was ethnic diversity in Britain millenia ago.

Sun headline
Right-wing British tabloid the Sun quotes Woody Johnson, suggesting that the mythical past will impact on the post-Brexit future, 14 November 2017.

Is the politicisation of a purist, fantasy past a failure of history? Have we made any progress since Wright pointed out in 1985 that ‘the national past is capable of finding splendour in old styles of political domination and of making an alluring romance out of atrocious colonial exploitation’?

History changes with the fashion of the times, just like literature or films. Different contexts demand different stories. However, if only one narrative is available – and if this fuels a racist or xenophobic view of history – heritage sites and organisations should, rightly, examine whether they enable or even support this view.

But if our historians and heritage sites are telling one story, and our press or our political leaders are telling another, what then? How can we reach out to people to tell them that our past is being abused? Where are the heritage displays which shout about British collaboration with Europe, about the horrific abuses perpetuated by our glorious empire, about the fascinating and beneficial cultures brought into the country from across the world by centuries of immigration?

Heritage is, perhaps, as much the answer as it is the problem. If we learn about ourselves through stories about our shared past, we can learn about others by listening to their stories. The more we share, the more we learn. The more we learn, the less we fear the unknown.

(For a longer study of heritage and brexit, see – a great collection of thoughts on the past and the present.)

Please note, any comments deemed to be offensive or deliberately inflammatory will not be posted.

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