John Major's claim that nostalgia is the route to national decline has no basis
I have a lot of nostalgia for the John Major years. Partly it’s because 1997 saw a huge culture change that was not entirely welcome, marked by three historic events – the election of Blair, the handover of Hong Kong and the death of Princess Diana (and one might add a fourth, the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Partly, of course, it’s because I was a teenager and so associate my own relatively happy memories with a period that for many was grim – unemployment and negative equity for some, greater intolerance for others.
But nostalgia is hard-wired into us, so that even the most difficult of times are given a rosy sheen by our memories. In time, some of you might even remember 2020 fondly.
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In politics, nostalgia is viewed as a negative — a sign of irrationality and even personal failure. Yesterday former prime minister Sir John Major gave warning that “Complacency and nostalgia are the route to national decline”.
“We are no longer a great power,” Major said: “We will never be so again. In a world of nearly eight billion people, well under 1% are British.”
Is nostalgia really associated with decline? That strikes me as one of those things you read in the FT or Economist and is taken as true, without any real evidence. Nostalgia was certainly a common political feeling among societies on the rise; both archaic Greece and Republican Rome were noted for their yearning for a simpler (and obviously imagined) past. In our own country nostalgia has been a running theme among political causes from the Puritan radicals of the 17th century to the Young England movement, none of which heralded national decline. Even Edward III’s war back in the 14th century is seen by some historians as being built on nostalgia for a lost Arthurian world of chivalry and honour; and this was a war that helped forge our national identity.
More than 17 million people voted to Leave and no doubt some were nostalgic for an age when the country was more respected, and perhaps when they were personally happier and healthier. But I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Leave supporter who thinks Britain is still a major world power, or would particularly desire either an empire of a bigger place on the world stage; that desire for global greatness seems more common among supporters of the European Union.
Brexit support was contradictory; for some it was about a Global Britain vision of free trade and closer ties with the likes of Canada, Australia and India; for others (the majority, I’d say) it was a desire to slow down the pace of globalisation, to shore up social solidarity and security, and wages.
There’s an element of nostalgia in both of these visions, just as there is in ardent Remainerism — and that’s no bad thing.