Our New National Imaginary: Wholesome English Militarism From Crécy to the Blitz and Brexit
Max L. Feldman on Jacob Rees-Mogg's nostalgic view of British history and the pitfalls of creating a national military myth.
Of all the spectres haunting Europe, Brexit could be the hardest to grasp; it’s “like a mad riddle,” according to actor slash national conscience Danny Dyer. Nobody can explain why it happened. Nobody can say what it is. Certainly, nobody can divine the future. It is easy enough, however, to see two conflicting motives in the national imaginary energising some Leave voters and Eurosceptic Tory politicians. Nostalgia for cuddly old stories about the NHS, the welfare state, and the “Blitz Spirit” mixed with the future-oriented belief that the free market will deliver prosperity for all makes a combustible new brew. This updates a powerful myth of British exceptionalism: a historical mission to civilize—if not exterminate—all the brutes by selling them innovative jams and marmalades.
Britain is, of course, not alone in anchoring social control in great national stories. They form part of any national identity when times are good, and the new populist governments have been quick to repurpose them now that times are bad. The story behind this version of Brexit is, however, a unique distortion of Britain’s place in the world. It deliberately misremembers our “heroic” past and reclaims an illusion of that loss for national renewal. There is one glaring error in this picture. The British nation-state has no heroic past because it never existed. There was once the huge British empire, which eventually receded, but there has never been a standalone nation-state to restore.
The misrepresentation is obvious in former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s claim that Brexit aims “not to build a new empire—heaven forfend—but to use every ounce of Britain’s power, hard and soft, to go back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten over the past 45 years”. Things are, however, much worse in the naked nostalgia of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 2017 Conservative Party Conference speech. He declared Brexit “is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the Great Reform Bill, it’s the Bill of Rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things”.
Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), English victories against the French during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), are hardly a source of national identity for most people. They are, for one thing, specifically English victories. Despite the enduring popularity of Henry V, even people with an interest in English history might not have much to say about their context or importance. Rees-Mogg is here offering a pale imitation of English football fans stomping through the cobbled streets of European city centres chanting “Two World Wars and one World Cup.” Not only do these battles long pre-date England’s union with Scotland, they took place at a time when the English aristocracy spoke French; they are two episodes in over 600 years of frequent war between England and France, bookended by the French invasion of Normandy (1202) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). The Blitz is conspicuous by its absence in this speech, but Rees-Mogg is clearly trying to create an English collective memory by rooting the feeling of victory deep in the blood.
Fast forward to the early 21st century. Long before Brexit, when the thought of leaving the European Union was still a fringe issue, Rees-Mogg’s bluster was anticipated by a line from BBC comedy series The Thick of It, a show which successfully dramatizes the inner workings of modern British government.
Series 4 Episode 1 is about the “Silicon Playground” initiative. This idea fictionalises a signature Michael Gove policy from the early 2010s. It would scrap ICT in schools and have students design apps during lessons as the lead for the “Networked Nation” policy. Early in the episode, Conservative Director of Communications Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin) explains the Networked Nation. It’s about “harnessing the interconnectivity of everyone in society. It’s a new way of thinking: innovation, self-investment, revenue flux, growth, ergo a healthy network.” This blend of the economic concept of human capital with technological imagery is right out of the California Ideology. It is just one example of how the character of Stewart Pearson is based on David Cameron’s former Director of Strategy Steve Hilton. It gets worse.
During a brainstorming session towards the end of the episode, Pearson asks a question that now seems prophetic: “can we engender the same sense of pan-demographic communalities we had in the war but furrowed into the digital revolution?” This line illustrates the Brexiteers’ ideological balancing act: the romantic idea that victory is certain if everyone chips in and suffers for our hardy little nation, regardless of class distinctions. It calls for a retreat into the pretend past to find our national essence. When we get there, it says, we will restore a patrician social order we mistake for stability, celebrating low-level authoritarianism as if it was cheery pragmatism.
This is a product of what cultural historian Paul Gilroy calls “post-imperial melancholia” . This is a complex feeling of displacement caused by post-war immigration from former colonies and the inability to work through the idea that the British empire became a source of shame to be denied and forgotten. It is, however, laced with something more sinister: what philosopher Agnes Heller calls the “selectively tolerated historical memory”  of totalitarian regimes. Only officially sanctioned memories shaped by national tradition are allowed.
Gilroy asks why the British continue to shape their moral universe by compulsively repeating heroic tales of their country’s fight against Nazi Germany. He explains that only this can “provide the touchstone for the desirable forms of togetherness that are used continually to evaluate the chaotic, multicultural present and find it lacking” . Gilroy thinks that repeating these comforting stories is inseparable from a desire to recover an essential whiteness from the chaos of multiculturalism. These stories then orient the cultural life of the nation, so all British people know who we are and were, while at the same time imagining that things can be returned to the way they were before.
This is why Boris Johnson’s use of the exclamation “heaven forfend” is so misleading. It suggests that British imperial energies are to be used not for territorial gain, but as part of a vision for a “global Britain” that forwards its business interests free from the colonial past as if by magic. The breadth of historical references in Rees-Mogg’s speech is, however, more dangerous. He wants to invoke “pan-demographic communalities” by putting aside class differences, but with a new intensity. Rees-Mogg seems to be suggesting that British society could be strengthened if we were to artificially create a crisis to remind us of feelings of victory last felt by peoples’ grandparents and great-grandparents.
This lie pretends that the hardships of the Blitz were somehow desirable, as if pluckiness were a basic ethnic characteristic of the British people long smothered by EU red tape. It combines a valid desire for reorientation to deal with the problems of the present with a failure to imagine how things should be in the future. By returning to military victories from Crécy to Waterloo, we are told to look for social solidarity in a mythical point of origin. This blames someone else—Brussels technocrats across the channel, immigrants and “cosmopolitan elites” at home—for the lack of community feeling eroded by several decades of aggressive neoliberal reform that Rees-Mogg himself has benefited from and which he actively supports. These problems have been noted before.
Building on the work of philosopher Fredric Jameson, cultural theorist Mark Fisher outlines the worrying trend of “formal nostalgia”  in consumer culture. After three decades of traumatic cultural and technological change, from Thatcherism to cyberculture, our music, films, fashion, and design are unable to represent the present, let alone the future. We rely instead on the relentless repetition of recognisable forms, like the “retro” feel in music, book covers, design features, or what writer Owen Hatherley has called the “austerity nostalgia” aesthetic, encapsulated in the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan. Formal nostalgia explains not just why Brexiteers want to save us by turning to our former glories, but how they treat electoral politics as if it was a choice between mass-produced pap (supposedly burdened by EU regulations) and daintily handcrafted vintage goods.
Rees-Mogg’s speech, in fact, places class deep inside the blood, as if we should feel a profound sense of pride at the continuities between now and the feudal past, linked perfectly in the “pan-demographic communalities” of the Blitz. The rich man at his castle; the poor man at his wrought iron gate, miraculously still standing in front of a bombed out two-bedroom Edwardian terrace. Rees-Mogg, worse still, stylises the past as if it were a period drama, or as if Hugh Grant’s speech from Love Actually were equivalent to Henry V, and both were of equal market value for global Britain.
This “play of random stylistic allusion”  characterises what Jameson calls “postmodern” culture, which recycles the styles of the past so pervasively that we can no longer order our experiences of time. Jameson thinks this appears most clearly in what he calls the “nostalgia film”. Films like this, filled with visual cues that look like they are from the 1930s or 1950s, use a stereotypical idea of what the “past” is as an in-built aesthetic effect. The problem is that the viewer understands the nostalgia film’s visual code because it occupies a place in the history of aesthetic styles and not “real” history. Present reality thereby appears through the filter of a “glossy mirage” produced by the pastiche of these stereotyped versions of the past.
The middlebrow consumer culture of 21st century Britain is fertile ground for the political use of these techniques. We are used to well-presented things that refer to an unspecific past without any of the inconvenient little details. We get silly handlebar moustaches without the tuberculosis, vintage floral dresses without the dreary Home Economics classes or backstreet abortions, and 1950s-style American diners located in former slums in the East End of London without the grinding late Victorian poverty or racial segregation. Rees-Mogg’s vision for Brexit, which uses a montage effect not unlike the nostalgia film, is guilty of a similar level of “complacent eclecticism” .
By placing the 2016 Brexit Referendum in a timeline between 1215 (Magna Carta) and 1832 (the Reform Act), Rees-Mogg reduces significant historical events to pieces of London gift shop kitsch. He sells distorted ideas about national sovereignty as if they were umbrellas printed with the image of the Union Jack. By following the language of pride in parliamentary democracy—the long road to universal suffrage since Magna Carta—with a list of English military victories, Rees-Mogg also plays into what Gilroy has called the “wholesome militarism”  of stories about World War Two.
Examples from recent European political history give us a picture of what happens when this idea is taken to its conclusion. The far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) use a similar device to justify their anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim policies. So did Slobodan Milosevic after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), formed in the 1950s by unrepentant Nazis, often say they are defending European civilization from the incoming hordes by referencing the Ottoman Empire’s two failed attempts to invade Austria in the Siege of Vienna (1529) and the Battle of Vienna (1683). It is with a sigh of inevitability that we note that the Refugee Crisis marks, for the Austrian far-right, the “Third Siege” of Vienna. There is another version of this story that is, however, far more violent: the role of Kosovo in the imagination of Serbian ultranationalists.
The Ottoman Empire’s victory against Moravian Serbia and the Kingdom of Bosnia in the Battle of Kosovo (1389) led to five centuries of Turkish imperial occupation in the Balkans. Kosovo was where the most ancient and beautiful medieval Serbian Orthodox churches were located, but, until the 1980s, most Serbs ignored the backwards province and its Muslim-majority, culturally Albanian people. This is in part because of political stability. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was, throughout the 1960s and 70s, an imperfect but secure multi-ethnic state with a comparatively liberal market-socialist economy. Its people enjoyed freedoms unheard of in regimes like Czechoslovakia and Poland. The death of leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, however, left a power vacuum, increasing unemployment, and high inflation. After coming to power in 1989, President Slobodan Milosevic exploited the resulting rising tide of ethnic nationalism. He used the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo to emphasise its importance for Serbian national life even though few Serbs lived there anymore. The resulting Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001) killed around 130-140,000 people and displaced some four million.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is unlikely to be tried at The Hague for war crimes. His speech is, however, incompatible with the values of advanced western democracy he claims to protect. Its place in our damaged public discourse should be given more attention, since it is difficult at present to see how we can repair public life. We should not pretend, though, that any of us are willing to learn from history. The political class could not have foreseen the wave of crises since the 2008 financial crisis, though they knew precisely what austerity would bring. The equation is simple: no austerity, no Brexit. “Pan-demographic communality” is an empty replacement for real social solidarity. The phrase is fictional, but the attitude is real. It treats the inner glow we are meant to get from national identity as part of some meaningless administrative exercise. There must be a way out. Another character from the Thick of It might show us the way. The fearsome, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) has many brilliant lines, but one of his attempts to mop up the media backlash caused by ministerial incompetence stands out. “It’s like The Shawshank Redemption,” he says, “only with more tunnelling through shit and no fucking redemption”.
Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria.
 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 98.
 Agnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 106.
 Gilroy, After Empire, p. 95.
 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, (Alresford, Hants: Zero Books, 2014), p. 8.
 Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia, (London: Verso, 2016).
 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (London: Verso, 1991), p. 18.
 Gilroy, After Empire, p. 95.