The Tory obsession with the past

Given their fondness for the past, anyone would think that the Tories knew something about history, but it isn’t history or the past that they’re interested in. It’s something else. Now they won’t admit it to themselves, but what they’re actually concerned with is nostalgia: the romanticized view of the past or, as I often put it, “history with all the bad bits taken out”. It is a ‘past’ where the rich could get on with being rich. The aristocracy controlled parliamentary politics and much more besides and the working classes and the poor knew their place.

This blog from (Fr)Ed West is a case in point. West asks “What was so bad about the 1950s”? This is a cue for his racist readers to complain that today’s Britain is full to bursting with those horrible ‘coloureds’. West opines,

But what do people have against the 1950s? It’s a strange insult to use because, not only were the 1950s an incredibly peaceful, ordered time but they were also, by today’s standards, very equal (and getting more so).

A “peaceful and ordered time”? I think I know where this is going. But let’s deal with the lie that the 1950s was “peaceful”. He forgets the Korean War, in which Britain was a participant. The Suez Crisis, the euphemistically-named Malay Emergency, the continued occupation of Iraq, the struggles that preceded de-colonization (Kenya was particularly nasty) and the ever-expanding Cold War.

It was a great time to be poor – the first time in history when a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids, as well as having enough to save, afford a holiday and, often even run a car. Today, especially when housing costs are considered, that is very difficult.

Hang on, it was a “great time to be poor”? Is he for real? Then, with a straight face, he tells us, “a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids”. He deliberately confuses being working class with being poor. I think the less time I spend on Westworld, the better.

So what is this Tory obsession with nostalgia? Is it because their knowledge of the past comes from fictionalized historical narratives? Or is it something else? Early into their government, some Tories were openly advocating a return to Victorian’values’. Cameron even told us how we should return to those days to ‘reclaim’ our industrial heritage (there was the subtext of Empire too). This blog from Andrew Hill of the FT, kicks a big hole in Cameron’s ‘vision’.

The Tories don’t like a citizenry that questions things. In fact, they would much rather we didn’t refer to ourselves as ‘citizens’ but as ‘subjects’ instead. A subject is not an active member of society but a passive one. Subjects question nothing, their role is to accept everything that comes from their masters. They are deferential to authority and are happy to take up arms against anyone whom the state has identified as the ‘enemy’.

The thing that started this sudden interest in 1950s nostalgia came from Pob (Michael Gove) and his plans to revive old qualifications, which he declared are better and tougher than today’s qualifications. Never mind that he insulted all those youngsters who have completed their tough exams by telling them that they have it easy or that he has practically set about destroying the comprehensive education system in this country. For Gove and his chums, it’s all about learning facts, dates and figures by rote. Forget about developing a critical mind. In today’s Britain, questions are verboten. Accept your place and like it.

Even many historians who self-identify as Tories are inclined to revisionism. Niall Ferguson, who was asked by this government to rewrite the history syllabus, is notorious for his ‘counter-factual’ histories. Not content with seeing the past as it was, the Tories want to create a new past in which social reforms never existed. They despise the idea of a ‘people’s history’ or social histories because these tell the real story of the people not the Tory version of history with its emphasis on ‘derring-do’ and Empire.  Starkey, in particular, dismisses social history as “feminized”. This probably tells us more about his misogyny than any concern he may or may not have for ‘real’ history.

In the Tory version of history, the Peterloo Massacre was entirely necessary because the Chartists represented a threat to the ‘natural’ order. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867  should never have happened because a modicum of power was ceded to some of the people (the property qualification remained until 1918 and women were only permitted to vote in 1928) – too much, in other words. It also meant that politicians were now accountable to the electorate, which was anathema to those who wanted retain their tenuous hold on power through the rotten boroughs.

The 1950s was a time of political deference that was only disrupted by the appearance of Beyond the Fringe and even then, half of the participants in that production came from ruling class backgrounds (Miller and Cook).  This longing for another age is indicative of an inability to face up to the present or confront the challenges of the future. This attitude is best represented by the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand. Gil Scott-Heron, writing about the US Republicans’ penchant for nostalgia in his rap poem B-Movie,  sums it up,

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan – and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at – like a “B” movie.

B-Movie may have been written about the US but it applies to Britain as well. Instead of John Wayne, we have Winston Churchill or any number of rehabilitated right-wing heroes. Enoch Powell, for example. These figures have been detached from history, airbrushed and re-presented to us as demi-gods or prophets. This shouldn’t surprise us, because the Tories don’t like taking a critical look at their objects of worship. It’s easier to accept easy answers to complex issues and if that means re-ordering the past to suit their thesis then that’s what they’ll continue to do.

Nostalgia isn’t real: it’s a representation of history. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Finally, nostalgia is easier to deal with than history because of the uncomplicated nature of the fantasy. Nostalgia is free from the ugly realities of life. This is why the Tories find it so much easier to engage with nostalgia than history itself.


Filed under 19th century, 20th century, History, History & Memory

4 responses to “The Tory obsession with the past

  1. representingthemambo

    Reblogged this on Representing the Mambo and commented:
    Another good piece from a uniformly excellent blog.
    The Tories attempts to take us back to the 1950s are well under way. It’s always a dilemma for me whether the likes of Michael Gove just don’t understand what it was really like back then and have a hopelessly idealistic vision of women who knew their place riding their bicycles to church on a Sunday and making jam for the congregation whilst knitting a lovely winter jumper for the vicar (who naturally didn’t have a predilection for choir boys on all fours) or whether he knows exactly how unpleasant it was but wants to get back to it as the wealthy were treated with even more deference and afforded even more largesse than they are now.
    Either way though, returning Britain to ‘traditional values and standards’ appears to be a policy objective of this government. But we all know what it means in practice.

  2. NJH

    I was born in the 1950s. It was a good time. We had just won a war against the fascists (obviously I do not remember this but most of my teachers did) and we were going to have a better, fairer, more equable country. The working classes were sort of going to be rewarded for their part and we were going to have a country fit for purpose. Although there was a lot of respect for the monarchy, the concept of respect for authority, just because it was authority, was no longer accepted. Respect was earned.
    The unwritten promise was more automation (yes, it was spoken about in those days) and as a result a shorter working week, a better standard of living, earlier retirement on a bigger pension. Moving into the 1960s, young people (students) were in open revolt over unjust wars in Vietnam, Civil Rights and the establishment (I was never quite sure of what that was!). I was young so I do not really remember but there did not appear to be a problem with enough housing, the NHS was just there and did its job. My sister had polio and was put into isolation but she was treated with no thought about money. When my mother had a cerebral heamorrhage, she had the best treatment on the planet by one of the top surgeons in the world. All at the tax-payers expense. No testing to see if she was “worth” saving.
    There were a couple of inveterate dole scroungers (some in my family) but everyone knew who they were and they were sort of regarded as morally weak and pitied, rather than ostracised. Tertiary education was effectively free and if you were academically gifted enough you went to university. Yes there were costs associated with living away from home but you were not going to leave uni with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. Also you were made for life, a degree really meant something. It was also a time when you could jump a couple of rungs up the social ladder by getting a good, respected, professional qualification.
    Yep, things were different in the 1950s. We had hope!

  3. John

    What percentage of the population went to uni at that time?
    Who had hope?

  4. NJH

    A far smaller proportion of school leavers went to university. They all came from Public School and they knew that they were born to be in charge. No-one had any hope, at all in any way shape or form. In fact I remember being more suicidal than happy.

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