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Cameron, Miliband and the politics of the past

In her column in the Daily Telegraph last week, Mary Riddell drew on my book to argue that David 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 Margaret Thatcher (and those who came after her) had already lost the reverence for the past that marked previous generations of Westminster’s political class. 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 seems 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, Miliband could do worse than take inspiration from Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. For all the cries of ‘socialism’, this was intended as a 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.

History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics: past politics and present histories (Manchester University Press, 2012), was launched last week at the House of Lords.

Emily Robinson

Published inBritish PoliticsPolitical history


  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    It may of course be in the book itself, but the abstract gives no hint of what is surely the most interesting issue here – the fact that claiming a monopoly over patriotism both empowers and delegitimises particular political tradition. It is, perhaps, the dog whistle par excellence.

    If Emily has indeed not looked at it from this angle, it’s a pity: the way in which patriotic stories are told, or particular groups demonised, will be at the heart of the remaking of our politics from one organised around class-based cleavage to one organised around ethnicities. But she could always write a sequel…

  2. Emily Robinson Emily Robinson

    Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. Yes, the way in which certain groups claim to speak for the whole country, for the national interest, is one of the main themes of the book. Given that my focus is political parties, rather than wider themes, I mainly look at the way in which Conservatives have previously been able to present themselves as ‘naturally’ patriotic and in command of the established view of the national past, but how this has been challenged in different ways since around the 1930s.

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