The writer is a social researcher and the director of the British Foreign Policy Group
It is our present, not our past, that is consumed by nostalgia. New polling conducted by YouGov to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations found almost 40 per cent of older Britons believe their country has declined over the 70 years of her reign. The generational divide the survey revealed captures the contest to define the UK’s relationship with history and to shape a modern national identity.
Cultural theorist Svetlana Boym defined two strands of nostalgia — the natural human instinct to be “reflective” about one’s youth in a warm glow of memory and a “restorative” version, which seeks to reimpose the structures of the past. It is the latter style that political campaigns seek to mobilise and can prove dangerous.
Peddlers of nostalgic narratives emphasise the threat from a dismantling of the status quo and portray social change as a zero-sum redistribution of power. They too often fail to see that for many, particularly women and minority groups, the elevation of the past denies the hard-won rights, representation, and agency of the present.
Equally, those more attuned to the opposite threat — an unravelling of modern advances — tend not to accept the human tendency to recognise safety in the familiar.
When forced to remove the rose-tinted glasses, most Britons recognise many concrete improvements. Central heating, longer life expectancy, cultural tolerance, and women’s economic emancipation are frequently cited in my focus groups. Few wish to return to the past, but rather to slow the pace of change and reconnect with elements they feel slipping away.
A preoccupation with the past, visible in both the Brexit referendum and the debate currently raging around the legacy of empire, tends to germinate in a sense of insecurity. The longing is not materialistic, it is for intangible feelings of community, stability, and optimism. For older…
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