The Politics of the Past

In her column in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Mary Riddell drew on my book to argue that Cameron is at risk of destroying his party’s link to the national past; of concreting over the connection to the native soil reawakened by the Olympics.

Part of the argument of my book is that Thatcher (and those who came after her) had already lost the reverence for the past that marked previous generations of Tories and socialists. Instead, they made free use of ‘heritage’, drawing together certain elements of the past to underpin their intentions in the present – whether of Victorian Values or an ‘historic’ progressive alliance, more authentic than the hard left’s class politics. The past here served the present; it did not challenge or unsettle it.

Yet, as Riddell points out, Cameron seems at risk of jettisoning even this rather weak and instrumental sense of the past. He is taking inspiration from the iconoclasm of the Thatcher and Blair years, without realising that they were built upon a very subtle negotiation with the past: rejection, rewriting and reclaiming went hand in hand.

Thatcher was described by Maurice Cowling as having ‘only a low-level, Neville Chamberlain-type conception of the spiritual glue which is one of the Conservative Party’s special needs.’ Yet, she was able to weave together her own myth, based on pickings from Conservative and Liberal history, and from national and intensely personal heritage. Even Blair, the arch-moderniser, was more nuanced than might first appear. In the debates over party modernisation, he first dismissed the appeal of Labour’s past, casting his opponents as simply sentimental and nostalgic. But then he rewrote it –claiming an alternate heritage, based on co-operative values and the Edwardian progressive alliance. Because this pre-dated the commitment to public ownership, it could be claimed as necessarily more authentic.

As Riddell notes, Ed Miliband does seem to have grasped this better than Cameron. As I wrote about his appearance at the Durham Miners’ Gala, he too is managing to construct a sense of shared heritage based on local and national identities, which draws together a narrative that is both partisan and patriotic.

In doing so, he could do worse than take inspiration from Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. For all the cries of ‘socialism’, this was a relatively unifying portrayal of the national past – in fact it was its presentation of the multicultural present which seem to have caused the most upset on the Tory right. Boyle’s image of the pastoral idyll destroyed by capital could have come straight from the socialist pageants of the 1930s. Yet, this past was also presented as the fount of national greatness and technological progress. It was the route by which, for good or ill, we came to be the country we are today. And by the end of the performance we were left in little doubt that this was undeniably for good. Even the references to the great touchstones of radical history – the Jarrow marchers, the Suffragettes, the NHS – were placed in a nostalgic frame of ‘pastness’. They could be celebrated as part of our heritage, without challenging the basis of the present.

This attitude to the past – affirmative, celebratory – is very much in tune with wider cultural attitudes. Tracing our history and preserving our heritage has become a way of enhancing and affirming our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively. While the past may no longer impose any obligations on us, instead it serves as an inspiration. And the wisest of our politicians know how to appeal to just this sentiment.

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1 Response to The Politics of the Past

  1. Wow, a mention of your book in a national newspaper. That’s pretty awesome, despite the Tory-ness of the Daily Telegraph. Nice work!

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