Don’t mention the cost of living: how a cult of nostalgia is damaging Britain

From imperial measures to crown symbols on pint glasses, the Government seems determined to distract us from issues that actually matter

<p>People in south London queue for food during the potato shortage of 1947 (Getty Images)</p>

People in south London queue for food during the potato shortage of 1947 (Getty Images)

“Govt to announce the return of imperial measurements, so that foodbank queues can be measured in furlongs.” The Twitter account for Have I Got News For You captured in one short joke how many people who don’t subscribe to the Daily Mail feel about the festival of contrived nostalgia currently being staged by Downing Street.

The obsession with reclaiming pounds, ounces and crown stamps on pint glasses is a pretty obvious distraction from what Boris Johnson does not want us to think about: a spiralling cost of living crisis, closely followed by a likely vote of no confidence in his own position as prime minister.

British politics has always had an unhealthy, inaccurate and deeply odd fixation with the past. A notion of a long-gone era of ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘make do and mend’, when Britain was truly “great”, when Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the empire. (And there’s not enough space here to get into the economic and cultural damage wrought on the former colonial nations that endures to this day.)

This virulent strain of antiquarian ideology found a pithy mantra in the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan of the Vote Leave campaign of Dominic Cummings, and it clearly still survives and thrives among the prime minister’s new cabal of advisors and ministers, if the imperial measurements ‘strategy’ is any indication of current thinking inside Number 10.

The original price list for drinks hangs in the bar of The Valiant Soldier pub in Devon. The time warp pub was left unchanged from when it closed in 1965 until reopened as museum nearly 30 years later in 1998 (Getty Images)

Never mind the fact the proposed return to pounds and ounces has already been branded “a nonsense” by Asda boss Stuart Rose, or that many retailers have warned that it will actually add costs at a time of already rising food prices.

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During the pandemic this biscuit-tin nostalgia was there in references to the ‘Blitz spirit’ from those who were born in the 1950s and 60s. It makes you ponder what the Government is going to propose to bring back next. Rationing? Bowler hats? Milk floats?

Actually, best not to go down that hypothetical path, because you soon get to other staples of the 1940s, like a lack of electricity for a quarter of the population, or foreign travel being a luxury reserved for the rich only, which may start to sound like viable policies for the next cabinet ideas sesh.

The reality is that, here in 2022, we are in the middle of a real drop in the living standards we’ve come to expect in the 21st century. The number of emergency food parcels being given out by Trussell Trust food banks has gradually increased since 2014-15, with the number peaking at 2.6 million in 2020-21, during the height of the pandemic.

That situation will worsen this year, with inflation continuing to soar to record levels every month, and the typical household energy bill set to rise by about £800 a year in October when the energy price cap rises again.

There is even talk of power cuts for millions of people this winter due to the ongoing energy supply crisis. Sound familiar?

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Nostalgia vs innovation

In times of such hardship, we need our politicians to be bold. To take firm action that may not be popular with their base, but helps the millions who need it most. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has already shown how reluctant he is to do this, eventually relenting to a windfall tax after months of pressure.

We also need creativity and innovation: a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit that can put Britain back on the map for the right reasons.

Much of our science and technology sector took a hit from Brexit, but it’s still arguably the country’s greatest asset. Oxford University created a vaccine against Covid-19 with AstraZeneca that has been administered 2.5 billion times in 170 countries. Graphene, the world’s thinnest material, which has huge potential, was isolated from graphite at the University of Manchester. The Humber Refinery in Lincolnshire is one of the most important points in the global supply chain of lithium, the battery ingredient that could power a new green revolution. Scotland too is playing a crucial role in the development of wind and tidal power.

A scientist working in Oxford Vaccine Group’s laboratory facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

But instead of celebrating and promoting these achievements, breakthroughs and industries, and many more besides, we are stuck in a wearying cycle of nostalgia for a nation that never really existed.

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That, of course, finds its focal point in events like the Jubilee. It’s easy to understand why people feel the need for a celebration, a lightweight distraction from what’s been a truly depressing news cycle for what seems like forever.

But you have to wonder whether channelling it all towards a group of people who live a life of luxury at the taxpayer’s expense is really in the collective interest of the UK at this point.

The truth is there’s one aspect of British life that’s reverting to the past, and that’s our living standards. The Government’s own forecasts last month showed that they are set to see their biggest fall since records began in the late 1950s.

Tough times lie ahead, and so attention needs to turn back to the UK’s current challenges and its future potential, rather than some rose-tinted version of a past that very few are old enough to remember now anyway.