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ARINS Blog: The Politics of Cultural Loss

In our latest ARINS blog Mary Evans Professor Emeritus at LSE discusses the Politics of Cultural loss.

The recent politics of Europe have brought home to many of us the continuing vitality of fears related to social change: what is best described as the fear of cultural loss. Conservative politics across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, have fuelled a sense of the world having evolved in ways that are said to bring irreparable loss to nations, cultures and individuals. In many cases this sense of loss is located in various issues, but fears for British and Irish national(link is external) and gendered identities(link is external)  consistently inform the theme .

In any account of cultures of loss, is how complex is the making of that sense of loss. If we take the Republic of Ireland as one of the many examples of a country which has, in the past fifty years, seen a transformation of its laws around gender and sexuality, we can see how a powerful literature has supported those changes at the same time as re-considering Irish history.  In the works of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Clare Keegan and Colm Toibin aspects of the past in Ireland are shown in all their evasions, deceits and punitive practices. Yet, what is also recalled is a powerful sense of ‘being Irish’, an identity forged out of the eight hundred years of struggle for independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That element in the individual sense of having a national identity can inform both sides of the ‘culture wars’ and demonstrates how diverse the construction of cultural loss may be.

Nostalgia has long been considered one of the major English narratives; a way of looking at the past which assumes fixed English identities and a ‘great’ historical past. In this sense its current re-iteration is nothing new and as always provided a place of sanctuary for societies as divided as those of Northern Ireland.   But it is not a story which has always convinced everyone, even those often associated with that canonical English literature which may be read as an endorsement of the past. When the English novelist Evelyn Waugh was confronted with a comment about the consistently excellent behaviour of the ‘English gentleman’ he remarked that he himself had never noticed this. Yet this mythical persona has formed the basis of considerable fiction, invoking a world of accepted social cohesion.

That vision of the past, of the ‘good’ and munificent ruling class of England never of course existed. England, the United Kingdom and the Empire were ruled by the privileged for the privileged with occasional bursts of altruism and social improvement. Despite the best efforts of conservative historians such Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts to argue the case for the general improvement the British Empire brought to its inhabitants, the balance sheet of the past two hundred years of British history suggests a very different picture .

However, that picture remains deeply alluring for millions of British people  especially those who fear attacks or critique of their identities. It is a history of white people (usually male people) strutting the world and exerting dominance over domestic and foreign populations. Should an enemy threaten then a saviour will emerge and the British will come together to fight off this enemy. The traction of the still potent example of Britain’s part in the Second World War remains – and has been seen to remain in debates over Brexit – a dominant strand in our nostalgia about ourselves. Despite the fact that the human and material resources of both the Soviet Union and the United States played the decisive roles in the Second World War ‘we’ won the war and with it a much-enhanced vision of our national culture. The war time rhetoric of ‘all being in this together’, as problematic as it was then, was used yet again by the Cameron government to justify vicious policies of spending cuts. .[1]

It is through this endless re-play of moments of historical unity and moral clarity that in the second decade of the twenty first century millions of British people feel that the world in which they now live has lost much that is valuable, a sense of loss which it is particularly acute for older generations who did not fight in the Second World War but whose parents did. Younger generations may have little recognition about ‘the war’ given that 1939-1945 were years belonging not just to their grand-parents but also to their great grand- parents. But what that generation has grown up with up is another fundamental transformation of the social world as great as that of the loss of the Empire and its accompanying sense of British global influence and power. Legislative changes across much of the world have endorsed both different kinds of sexual relations and access to forms of contraception and divorce. In  these changes what has disappeared for many people is the sense of ownership over the personal relationships of others: the right for a community or a neighbourhood to condemn behaviour (be it homosexuality or the birth of children outside marriage) that does not accord with prevailing norms . Upholding the norms of previous generations, as the case of Northern Ireland suggests is as much a form of political allegiance as resistance to sexual liberalism. Examples of this kind of condemnation constitute too much of the world’s social history. Even when a figure such as Alan Turing played a decisive part in England’s development of radar in the Second World prevailing laws about homosexuality condemned Turing to vicious medical treatments.

On questions of current English views about both sexuality and our national history evidence suggests deep, although not overwhelming, generational differences. It is a pattern to be found across Europe where generations who have grown up since the 1960s and 1970s generally have more accepting views about different sexual choices and less commitment to grandiose, and highly sanitised versions, of English history.  But before it is assumed that this entire generation, either in England or elsewhere, occupies a new tolerant space it is important to look more closely at what underlies these changes and what is a fissure, across much of Europe, between different social groups .

One of the first places to look for the origins of Right wing views – the views which have supported Donald Trump in the US, Vox in Spain, Reform UK in the United Kingdom and National Rally in France – is concern for the erosion of  racial  and ethnic difference. For example, in her study of the radically divergent lives of two women from Arkansas in the US (The Forgotten Girls) Monica Potts wrote of ‘dominant group status threat’.  Essentially, poor white people in the US felt that the colour of their skin owed them a measure of security and comfort; white was, and should be, more privileged than black. Immigration in European countries contributed to the perception that the particular privileges that made up being English (or French or Spanish or American) were being eroded by these changes. ‘Being‘ (English or French et al) had implicitly meant being of a single race, heterosexual and convinced of a country’s ‘greatness’. The slogan much used by the Trump campaign of ‘Make America Great Again’ invoked a sense of loss as much as it assumed that loss could only be repaired by a return to the past.

The case of England is a further instance of this complication. Previous comments here might lead to the conclusion that all of English culture and history is a generally endorsed and taken-for-granted set of assumptions about the glorification of the Empire, Winston Churchill et al. For some in English politics that is certainly the case. But for others, England, and English culture also includes the establishment of the National Health Service  and that endlessly radical and critical tradition in which the values and actions which are heralded as definitely ‘British’ have been consistently held to account. In such contexts the sense of ‘loss’ is not one for grandeur, patriarchy and a single, national racial identity but one which celebrates difference and equality. At least as importantly this view recognises the absurdity of assuming that the emergence of new rights (in personal relations as much as in citizenship) removes the rights of others.  Yet the fantasy of the fear of the implications of those new rights remains a potent political force. It is also one which can serve to marginalise more pressing political issues: of material inequality, the increasingly urgent problems of climate change and challenges to hard-won legal and institutional rights. Across the globe, a challenge to the false, dangerous and mythical narrative of cultural loss is now of immediate importance.

Mary Evans, Professor Emeritus at LSE

[1] David Cameron’s Big Society Speech 19 July 2010(link is external) https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech