The tyranny of nostalgia

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Analysis of the results of the EU referendum has rightly tended to identify a geographical divide between metropolitan and rural areas. But for many young people, the more noticeable — and more angering — divide is drawn by age. While only 27 per cent of voters aged 18–24 voted to Leave, this number steadily increases with age. 60 per cent of over 65s voted to Leave.

The rejection of the European Union should, as many have noted, be seen in the context of Britain’s decline as an imperial power. Much as this country’s retention of a long obsolete nuclear weapons system harks back to a time when it loomed large on the world stage, the shackles that bind us to Europe have come to be symbolic of Britain’s reduced status.

However true it might be that leaving the EU would actually reduce the UK’s influence on the world stage, the claim that this country needs a faceless foreign bureaucracy to exert international power was never going to be enough to satisfy those who long for the days of empire.

A YouGov poll in January of this year found that 44 per cent of British people think Britain’s colonial history is something to be proud of, while only 21 per cent think it is something we should regret. Without going into the history of colonialism in too much depth, and even accepting the possibility that it was good in some respects, it is astonishing that so many people in this country are proud of a period that saw the wholesale destruction of the Indian economy, wars in China to force opium on the inhabitants, and the slaughter of Kenyans on a massive scale in concentration camps.

This pride speaks to Britain’s powerful instinct for nostalgia, which becomes abundantly clear whenever a banal royal event clogs the tabloids, or indeed whenever the press is overtaken with feverish excitement at the prospects in a national tournament of our overwhelmingly average football team.

In The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal argues that nostalgia is tied up in anxiety about the future.

“By contrast, the past is tangible and secure; people think of it as fixed, unalterable, indelibly recorded. We are at home in it because it is our home.”

Nostalgia for a lost Britain is an escapist fantasy that brings with it illusions of universal prosperity, stability, and order. It fuels and is fuelled by a strong sense of pessimism about the changes that have been wrought on British society.

A poll by Lord Ashcroft conducted in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum illuminates this prevalent feeling, and reveals its connection to the desire for Brexit. While Remain voters were four per cent more likely to agree with the statement, “For most children growing up in Britain today, life will be better than it was for their parents” than the opposing statement, Leave voters were 22 per cent more likely to agree that life will be worse for most children growing up in Britain today.

Other results in the poll show a similar trend towards pessimism about the future on the part of Leave voters, which can perhaps be seen most clearly in the fact that they were 16 per cent more likely to think that life in Britain today is worse than it was 30 years ago than they were to think it is better, while Remain voters swung 46 per cent in the other direction.

This pessimism, and nostalgia for a Britain that probably never really existed, can perhaps explain why the long-anticipated late swing towards the status quo never materialized. For many of the British public, the status quo was lost long ago. Leave voters were far more likely than Remain voters to see forces such as multiculturalism, feminism, and social liberalism, as forces for ill. As far as many Leave voters are concerned, their vote was an attempt to return to the status quo — an active attempt to achieve the object of their nostalgia.

34 per cent of the British people, according to a 2014 YouGov poll, wish Britain still had an empire. Not only do many in this country create in their minds an idealized image of Britain’s past, they also long to recreate it. Perhaps the delusional Gatsby is their best representative.

“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’”

The age gap is one source of the mistaken but common feeling among the Left that ‘victory’ is inevitable. Like a New York Times think piece, we often suppose that millenials will eventually take over. But nostalgia is a powerful force, and will surely begin to permeate the hearts of ageing voters even as our boomer overlords die out. For those who believe in optimism, it is not enough to wait until we are on the right side of history.