Fings ain’t wot they used to be

Ah, nostalgia, that fuzzy feeling of a past that was simpler, more noble and in every way better than today. Fings ain’t wot they used to be, but, we should ask, were they ever?

All societies seem to have myths of an earlier period, an age where gods walked the earth and where life was better. The Greeks are probably the exemplar of this for Europeans; they described a sequence of five distinct Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age was first, followed in sequence, by the Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and then (their) present Age of Iron, which they saw as a period of decline.

In every way, the past was seen as better than the dull old here and now.

We seem to be living through a period where nostalgia for a more glorious past is gripping the nation. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and is also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which marked the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy, which led to the final defeat of Nazi Germany.

These anniversaries are seen as being important events in the history of our nation, which they were, but not necessarily in the way that some might imagine. Britain emerged from the Great War impoverished and in debt to the USA and went through a period of soul-searching and political and economic upheaval that left the nation ill-equipped to deal with the resurgence of Germany and the rise of totalitarian governments elsewhere in Europe.

We survived the Second World War and emerged, once again, victorious and even more in debt to the USA.

From then on, Britain found it difficult to maintain the illusion of Great Power status with the demands of our economic position at home.

If we look at Britain in detail, what we see in economic and industrial terms is a constant decline since the last quarter of the 19th century, linked to a parallel slipping away of Great Power status.

Anyway, I am really looking a little bit closer to the present at the moment.

Since 2008, we have seen a period of economic recession across Europe that has brought nations close to economic collapse and has seen an accompanying rise in political movements that are in stark opposition to the European political mainstream. These parties have different agendas that in many ways cannot be reconciled into any kind of common programme, but there are themes that they share; opposition to European integration, distrust of political elites, nationalism, opposition to immigration, anti-Muslim attitudes, distrust of multi-culturalism, repatriation of political power from the centre and (mainly) right-wing populism.

It is my contention that all of these ideas and attitudes are driven by a poisonous nostalgia, a belief in a golden age where each nation was in some intangible way Better Than It Is Now.

The problem is that rational argument cannot defeat nostalgia. People believe what they want to believe, not what evidence tells them is true. We see this in the UK where many voters are turning to UKIP as an alternative to the established parties. Most people don’t actually know what UKIP stands for, apart from getting the UK out of the EU, but that hardly seems to matter. In some way, UKIP represents a Golden Age, when Britain was “free” and bestrode the globe as the victor of Two World Wars (and even One World Cup), and did so without any involvement of foreign Johnnies from Brussels (or Luxembourg) with funny names and dangerous ideas about European cooperation and integration.

UKIP tells us that the UK would be better-off outside the EU. This is, of course, impossible to refute because we do not have a control version of the UK that never joined the EU to compare with, but it has become a very persuasive argument for many people. As far as I can see, it is fanciful nostalgia for a past that never existed. Britain was not a global trading colossus in the decades after 1945 and before accession to the then Common Market. The late 1950s and 1960s saw a series of economic crises in the UK. Living standards declined. I would argue that membership of the Common Market/EEC/EU has been more beneficial to the UK than anyone could possibly imagine.

In any case, this is about nostalgia, not economics. Our current government is nostalgic too. It wants to turn the clock back to the days before the Welfare State, before comprehensive education and before social housing.

Those of us old enough to have lived through those days, or who have parents who did, should be able to see through this particular piece of political conjuring, but do we? Nostalgia is getting in the way again.

It would appear that we want to believe that the past was better, even though the evidence tells us otherwise. Our memories play us false.

There are powerful emotional drivers for nostalgia; fear of the unknown, mistrust of the present, a feeling of being out of control, unhappiness and a dislike of change.

The problem is that those emotional states were always there. I can remember my parents and other adults, in the 1960s, talking about the war years in nostalgic terms. I am sure that during the war, people looked back to an earlier age in similar glowing terms. Mind you, you have to have some pretty powerful issues around change and progress to look back on the Home Front with any degree of fondness.

Immigration is one of the big issues for the reactionary forces we see today, but the issues they raise are exactly the same issues that have always been raised over immigration. Yes, new people arrive, but new people have always arrived. Over time, they end up fitting in. The problem is that the people who instinctively oppose immigration don’t seem to want to recognise this. They just want to oppose it regardless. They are afraid of change and retreat into some nostalgic fairyland.

So, nostalgia. What can I say? I see nostalgia as the most powerful weapon in the armoury of the reactionary, it plays upon fears and allows people to retreat from the present and wallow in some imaginary happy time. The reactionary politicians of today know how this works, they don’t really have to work hard at convincing people. Nostalgia does the work for them. Nigel Farage, the British Pierre Poujade, doesn’t have any answers to the perceived problems of Britain. There is no reason why he should, because the problems are largely imaginary. National problems are themselves an exercise in nostalgia.

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