Why living in the past is denying the UK a future

I’m as guilty as anyone of this; guiltier than most even. Apart from Max Hastings, Christopher Nolan and Gary Oldman, perhaps. I wrote The Summer of ’45 as a commemoration of the 70-year anniversary of D-Day. I worked with Dame Vera Lynn to tell her story of touring Burma and singing to the Forgotten Army in 1944. I wrote an award-winning, real-time, blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Britain on social media for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

But of course it’s not only me – we have recently had Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman won his Oscar. Dame Vera Lynn, at 100 hundred years old, was amongst the bestselling female musical artists of 2017. The British publishing industry continues to have an insatiable appetite for Second World War titles, which are eagerly consumed by wealthy Brexit-voting baby boomers who are about the only segment in society who still have the time and money to sit around actually reading a sizable quantity of books, while the rest of us work 60-plus-hour weeks just to stay afloat.

Writing about history has been a large part of my career and how the United Kingdom stood firm against Nazi Germany is a cornerstone of this country’s modern story and folklore. I think it’s important and I don’t want to knock it too much. But other countries are bemused by this obsession with the past – see for instance the German Ambassador to Britain. I share his sense of  puzzlement. I believe that as a country (and I would argue that the older generations are more to blame than the younger ones) our collective cultural obsession with the past is damaging to the UK – we are spending so much time creating and consuming cultural artefacts about the wars of the twentieth century, that there is very little space for visions of any kind about the future. It means that as a nation we are failing to adequately prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.

(A tangent: perhaps this is because of the ‘silver pound’ – the fact that there is so much generational wealth inequality (and that older generations still deal in monetised, physical cultural reproduction e.g. books, CDs, vinyl, magazines, newspapers, DVDs, cinema) that there is a commercial imperative to create cultural products to market to this group.)

But I digress. You might expect that a momentous political decision for a nation would act as a spark to create all kinds of exciting visions of what the future might look like. But it has not. The nostalgia industry hasn’t let up and in fact it seems to have been fueled to even greater excesses by Brexit. One of the key slogans of Brexiteers was ‘Taking back control’, but other than dodgy statistics (£350m a week to the NHS?), petty grievances about minor EU rules (Daniel Hannan, when asked by Nick Robinson, about the one thing he would like Brexit to change said that he was offended by the fact that EU legislation meant he couldn’t get rid of yoghurt-stained booster seats for his kids as soon as he would have liked),  and a wave of xenophobic invective about immigration, it still seems unclear as to what that actually means. If Brexit is such a great decision for Britain, then what does our sparkling, golden future hold? Where are the sunlit uplands?  I have not heard any  great vision. And that’s because one doesn’t exist – Brexit is nostalgic, small island conservatism dressed up as internationalist radicalism; it suggests that Britain can be great again because it lost touch with what turned it into an empire, when in fact it needs to adapt to the times and become a truly modern democracy.

I helped the Department for International Trade last year to prepare for post-Brexit trade deals by writing about the country’s different industry sectors and why they are world-class in what they do. Being involved in that project reassured me that this country is genuinely brilliant at many things – in technology, engineering, the arts, architecture, cutting-edge automotive innovation, and the digital economy, for instance. Our beleaguered and neglected education system is still outstanding in many areas. But Brexit is going to impede rather than help most of these sectors. One of the curiosities of the DIT project was that the department was very keen to promote the UK as a culturally diverse, liberal, open economy and political system. Yet the entire impulse behind Brexit is the exact opposite to this; and I believe that it potentially creates the conditions for the UK to turn into a country that is much less culturally diverse, less liberal, and less open to outside influences.

If Brexit is going to happen, and let’s face it, the odds are very much in favour of it, then I’d like to hear some good ideas about how the UK might thrive – against the odds – in the post-Brexit world. Being some kind of low-tax haven for dubious oligarchs and cultivating 21st century feudalism doesn’t strike me as a great look. But I believe that if the UK can become a leader in the fight against climate change with pioneering renewables and carbon capture; improve its environmental record and change the deeply flawed EU subsidy system; upgrade the UK’s democracy to one that is genuinely representative; encourage small businesses rather than exploiting workers through the gig economy; fund the arts and culture that is respected and admired so much around the world; resist voracious American trade deals; improve the education and health systems that are at risk of failing; become a leader in the global digital economy and use digital solutions to tackle big societal problems like obesity; address wealth inequalities and equality of opportunity; tackle the troubled housing market; embrace the innate internationalism that is one of the few positive inheritances the UK has from its role as an empire nation; and continue to welcome people from across the world to our small but fascinating country; then I think there is a chance that the UK might become more than just a footnote in the history of the 21st century.

Otherwise, sadly, (to quote Private Fraser from Second World War comedy Dad’s Army), ‘We’re doomed.’


3 Replies to “Why living in the past is denying the UK a future”

  1. Hello, 10 years ago I lived for one year in England as an exchange student coming from Germany. Of course I liked it a lot. I hab a really good time and ever since I am in love with your beautiful country (despite not expecting it first). My family asked a lot of questions about England, some of my family members came over to spend their holidays with me and they loved it, too.
    The only thing that felt strange to me (and what we discussed sometimes) was that the past was so alive. Every day there was at least one episode about Britains fighting Nazi Germany on TV; at parties (after people got to know where I was from) they asked me frequently if I like Hitler; a German English football match was commented like a war battle and English outstanding quality of engineering, education, health system was often talked about. While in my eyes both did not correspond to reality. At least not to the presented extent.

    Please do not take this as an offense. UK is great and it’s people are very nice. Germany also has a lot of problems. We can (and need) also talk hours about that… I just wanted to give my impression. Feel free to correct me, maybe I am terribly wrong.

    For economic reasons it would have been better if the UK would have remained. We Europeans are stronger together.

    But in every crisis lies a change. You are good people and like the author I think there is a good chance that you take your chance. Good luck and come over for a visit to Germany if you have never been there. It is worth it. Take care. 🤗

    Personal note to the author: I really hope my opinion is not offensive to the British people. Please feel free to not publish my words if you feel I am too strict. I do not want to contribute to this Germany against Britain fantasy. You know best. Kind regards, Barbara Hensel

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