WE can learn much from history, but this doesn’t mean that we have to live in the past. If there is one consistent drumbeat in politics right now, it is the sound of politicians on all sides looking back instead of casting forward.
Say what you like about the Brexiteers, but you have to agree that much of what they favour harks back to some (largely imaginary) version of Britain’s halcyon days, a time before globalisation, mass immigration and honey still for tea.
Wresting back control of our legislative process and trading links are promoted as the way for us to find our new place in the world, but this would be a place as much influenced by the cultural landscape of our imperial past as it is by visions of a fast-paced independent future.
You only have to look at arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to see that he’s never happier than when he’s channelling his Victorian pater-familias self.
This is not to say that everyone who voted Leave favours three-piece suits and speaks like a character out of Dickens. There are plenty of ordinary people I know around here who yearn for the days when to be British and working class meant automatic membership of a supportive local community with steady work and an overwhelming feeling of belonging.
Good manners. Respect and a strong sense of immediate gratification. Back then what a person earned or paid in taxes was immediately accountable and often directly measurable in their own town or village, rather than being swallowed up in an unfathomable international system.
The dichotomy, of course, is that many of these voters would now throw up their hands in horror if you told them that their regular holidays to Spain, Portugal or Greece were about to become more expensive and potentially difficult to organise.
They would not be happy at all if their cherished NHS suddenly slipped, time-machine-fashion, back to the 1930s, when women routinely died in childbirth and the elderly were thrown in the workhouse without so much as a winter fuel allowance or a free television licence to make life a bit easier.
However, if you want to get to the heart of why so many voted overwhelmingly to ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum, it is this desire for reassurance that you need to understand. The issue of political sentimentality has become so serious that the respected think- tank Demos held a poll last year which explored British people’s attitudes to the past. It found that 63 per cent of Britons think life is worse now than when they were growing up.
Demos is concerned that our nostalgic outlook is imperilling what they call “liberal democracy”. In other words, are we so afraid of the world that we are like flies stuck in amber, unable to gain forward momentum because of how dangerous we perceive the environment to be?
Consequently, this throws up a debate about whether the people influence the attitudes of politicians or if it works the other way around. Do our political leaders – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are both in their 60s – reflect what they hope might strike a chime with voters, or do they set the agenda and we follow their lead?
This is a particularly complex undertaking for the Labour party. Not only is it dealing with the pervasive public yearning for how things used to be, it is also engaged with reassessing several different versions of its own ideological history.
The current leadership makes no bones about which version it prefers; re-nationalisation of major industries and the rail network, the potential abolition of student tuition fees and a much stronger role for trade unions.
At the last Labour party conference, Laura Smith, MP for Crewe and Nantwich, got so excited at the prospect of resurrecting her party’s glory days she actually called for a General Strike. Deputy party leader Tom Watson later excused her call to arms, remarking that Ms Smith had got “carried away”, but you can see where this kind of thinking may lead.
While there are plenty of arguments both in favour and against ideological purity, it is true to say that imposing a series of previous blueprints on a country which has changed immeasurably since my dad worked for British Steel and stood on a picket line in the 1980s will not bring the hoped-for results.
Sorry to sound like an ancient bore, but younger Labour supporters buoyed by the whizz-bang excitement of the Momentum movement would do well to learn this. Some of us have been here before.
Nostalgia can be a comfort, but it also brings with it the musty whiff of decay and disappointment. Until more MPs come forward with interesting and engaging ideas about how Britain can find itself a place in the world, we won’t shake off the dust. What we need are fresh voices, and ones that march to the tune of progress instead of echoing the dead beats of old.