Earlier this month, the pollster and Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft convened a focus group to discuss a recent speech by Theresa May. Standing outside No. 10 Downing Street on May 3, the prime minister had responded, with even more bluster than usual, to leaked reports about her dinner with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. The dinner hadn’t gone well: multiple reports noted that May and her government were well out of their depth in dealing with the likely consequences of Brexit.
“Sounds like we’re in the war!” said one focus group participant upon hearing May’s remarks. “I thought we were listening to a broadcast from Churchill.” “Churchill” is a default setting for British politicians who want to sound commanding and imperious. Margaret Thatcher understood this well, as did the perma-grinning Tony Blair, who turned to the baby-faced imperialist when his smile proved insufficient: Blair launched his 2005 reelection campaign on the White Cliffs of Dover, the nearest point between Britain and France, and the mythic border between Britain and “the Continent.”
But it goes deeper than Churchill: the entire pitch of May’s snap election campaign has been predicated on a strange elision of the Britain of 1940 and the Britain of 2017—something latent in British political life for decades, but which has now become all but unavoidable. The further and further we get from World War II as actual memory, the more ubiquitous it becomes—a strange, unshakeable cultural hangover. Unlike the memory of devastation in Poland, the former USSR, Germany, or Japan, the British memory centers on the moment when Britain Stood Alone against the hordes beyond the Channel. (That there was a huge global Empire at Britain’s disposal goes unmentioned.) The familiar clipped phrases about restraint in the face of uncertainty—Blitz Spirit, Muddling Through, Stiff Upper Lip, and in the words of a now-famous unproduced 1940 poster that was rediscovered a few years ago, Keep Calm and Carry On—have been joined by some new ones: Take Back Control, Strong and Stable. The latter, May’s official campaign slogan, has been drilled relentlessly in the last month. The intended association was not lost on Lord Ashcroft’s guinea pigs.
This is not an invocation of World War II as such. Certainly it would seem rather insulting to compare, say, bad weather, a tube strike, or a self-inflicted economic crisis brought about by a credit bubble (or, for that matter, a plebiscite to leave a transnational institution) to a Luftwaffe bombing campaign that killed thousands. A line from the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a Churchill biographer who evidently thinks that his own combination of nationalist pomposity and “wit” makes him an heir to the great man, reveals what is really at work. When the French government suggested in January that Britain would pay a heavy price for leaving the European Union, Johnson responded that “Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings in the manner of some World War II movie.” This is not a memory of total war. It is a memory of The Dam Busters or The Great Escape, films of the ’60s shown on rainy Sunday mornings that conjure vague notions of vague heroism.
The left’s attempts to create a counter-myth around 1945 have been only moderately successful. Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 was a widely seen defense of the welfare state that took hold in 1945, after the Labour Party trounced Churchill in that year’s general election. Loach now finds himself directing Party election broadcasts for Jeremy Corbyn in his distinctive, anti-dramatic, staid, sentimental style. Labour-supporting memes proliferate on social networks, comparing the apparently “unelectable” Corbyn to the similarly quiet and diffident Clement Attlee, or to the conversely more oratorical Aneurin Bevan, creator of Britain’s National Health Service—a strongly socialist institution even by the standards of the time. But the Conservatives know not to denounce Labour on the basis of this version of the past: the NHS is enduringly popular, as are the “Spirit of 45” policies in Labour’s manifesto, such as public ownership of rail and water. Labour is attacked not for wanting to take us back to the 1940s—but to the 1970s.
Much as 1945 was a transformational moment in British politics (if also one made possible only by a massively unfair First Past the Post voting system), so too was 1979. Both launched a decades-long political consensus—first social democracy, then neoliberalism. 1945 was based on a bitter rejection of 1939—of a Conservative Party that had responded to the Great Depression with benefit cuts and means-testing (and whose significant pro-Hitler wing was defeated by Churchill only belatedly, after the war had already begun). 1979 was about the “chaos” brought about by the events of 1974. In the face of large-scale miners’ strikes and sympathetic actions by other trade unions, the Conservative government of Edward Heath, whose coal rationing had led to blackouts and the three-day week, called a snap election, losing unexpectedly to a Labour Party that promised in a radical manifesto “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favor of working people and their families.”
Under Tony Benn—first the industry secretary, later energy secretary—the new Labour government developed ambitious plans for the extension of public ownership and Yugoslav-style workers’ self-management. These plans, in turn, emerged from dialogue with movements such as the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a self-managed shipyard in Glasgow, and the Lucas Plan, a proposal by Lucas Aerospace workers that laid out how they could shift their skills from military to civilian production. The discovery of oil in the North Sea led Benn to argue for a sovereign wealth fund that could plow the money into a massive, yet democratized, social state. But the effects of the previous government’s credit boom—combined with the hostility of the financial markets—drove the government to impose austerity as the cost of an IMF loan. Labour-imposed limits on public sector pay led to enormous wildcat strikes in late 1978, and it is this heavily mediated memory of chaos—of mounds of uncollected rubbish, of unburied bodies in the streets and undertakers on strike (a myth, of course)—that the Conservatives today find so useful. Labour under Corbyn means Back to the 1970s: back to strikes, back to uppity workers, back to doubt and instability, back to bodies on the streets.
For decades, this has been a mobilizing myth, and not merely for the Conservatives—the ’70s are a memory Labour had to shake off in order to create a new narrative of stability, conformism, and sensible finance in the 1990s. There is no Spirit of ’74. A popular nostalgic film about Benn, Will and Testament, all but ignores the ’70s entirely, concentrating instead on the heroic defeats of the 1980s, from the epic miners’ strike of 1984–5 to Benn’s narrow defeat in a Deputy Leadership contest. In the last few years, a number of revisionist historians have challenged this popular version of the era. Andy Beckett’s 2009 history When the Lights Went Out revealed that on many measures—stability of employment, regional balance, availability, cost and quality of housing, equality and social mobility, economic growth, “happiness”—1976 was as good as it would ever get for the majority of the population. John Medhurst’s 2014 That Option No Longer Exists was more radical still: Medhurst defended Benn’s economic and energy proposals as a serious and plausible attempt to transform Britain from a nostalgic, post-imperial, rather self-righteous island into a northern European social democracy. The book has been a word-of-mouth success, which can be ascribed in part to its explicit thesis that the Labour Party, long written off by the British far left as a lumbering, bureaucratic electoral machine inimical to radical ideas, was in fact capable of responding to popular movements. This argument has obvious appeal given the hugely unexpected election of Corbyn (a close comrade of Benn) to Party leader. Whether Medhurst’s book is plausible in a counterfactual sense is debatable: everything could have ended in equality, stability, and per capita wealth on an unimaginable scale, as it did in Norway, which did what Benn failed to do with its share of North Sea oil—or it could have ended, as did the analogous experiment of the Mitterand government in France a few years later, in a capital strike followed by a surrender to “realism.” Given that the majority of British voters are people in their sixties, whose politics were formed in the turbulent 1970s—and by the chaos narrative subsequently set up to explain those years—these counter-narratives have had little effect so far.
These alternative time zones of British politics are proof of a uniquely nostalgic polity, a country haunted by its past and unable to break free from it. Yet this break was exactly what was promised by the last of the dates that haunts this election: 1997. In that year, Labour finally purged the 1970s from its memory—or thought they had—and went some way toward purging 1945, as well: Blair’s New Labour cut benefits, strengthened means-testing, and introduced ‘market reforms’ into the Post Office and the National Health Service. Yet the Party also expanded public education and health spending significantly (albeit at the cost of the deeply questionable Private Finance Initiative) and spent millions in tax credits, intended as the carrot at the end of the stick of benefit sanctions and cuts. The electoral success of 1997, followed as it was by another landslide in 2001, and then a more narrow victory in 2005 on a historically pitiful share of the vote, has led to the curious belief that these spineless policies are the only possible way for the left to win in Britain. The fact that it all ended in a still ongoing financial crisis that was actively encouraged by the Party’s refusal to regulate the financial industry of the City of London and Canary Wharf is rarely invoked by Labour’s defenders. The other side isn’t quite as cautious, however: the Conservatives have pummeled voters with the slogan “Labour can’t be trusted on the economy” since the crisis began, with 2008 serving as a kind of inverted successor to the strike wave of 1978.
The appeal of 1997 to Britain’s pundits and politicos, particularly the younger among them, is understandable, as Britain moves further and further away from liberalism, “Europe,” and any notion of modernity, in favor of Theresa May’s punitive and retrogressive vision. Many on the “center” openly dream of an imaginary centrist government that would stop Brexit and return us to normality, on the model of Emmanuel Macron’s successful campaign in France. Former Conservative chancellor and current editor of the London Evening Standard George Osborne has been suggested as a frontman, as has Blair himself—although both are staggeringly unpopular figures in opinion polls, considerably more so even than the beleaguered Corbyn.
But what is so seductive about 1997 is that it represents an exceptionally unusual model of modernity in British political life, where the nation’s endemic post-imperial nostalgia could be cast aside as much as that of the welfare state and Labour’s socialist past. Although it is now widely criticized for being excessively “cosmopolitan,” flag-waving was always part of New Labour’s vision—the most famous image of 1997 is of Blair arriving in Downing Street to find an adoring (Party-organized) crowd waving little Union Jacks. This was in the service of a country rebranded. One of Blair’s vacuous but utterly optimistic books is titled New Britain: My Vision for a Young Country. The 2005 manifesto is called Britain Forward Not Back. 1940, 1945, 1974, and 1979 are full of haunting possibilities, roads not taken, memories transformed into monoliths. Yet the same could be said of 1997, when Labour had a gigantic electoral mandate for a transformation of Britain into a more equal, more open, more modern, less cruel country, but decided that the means to achieve all this was to trust in the sensible bankers and reliable outsourcing companies. It’s the resulting failure that has let the ghosts back in, and nobody seems able to exorcise them yet.