The Spirit of the Blitz is Making us Sick
How do you deal with a national addiction? The UK is a debt dependant nation and it’s making us sick, so weening us off debt would be a start. But to really deal with an addiction, you have to find the trauma that underpins it, you have to treat the condition and not just the symptoms. But this is something we Brits never did. Instead we found a way to carry on as though debt itself was the problem and not why we wound up with so much of it in the first place.
Temperature’s rising / Fever is high
Can’t see no future / Can’t see no sky
John Lennon, Cold Turkey
This austerity business, this being austere…What did it actually mean? Now everyone involved is too ashamed to state that it’s officially dead, which is the clearest sign that it’s not coming back, it’s safe to have a go at an autopsy and get in under the skin of this perverted beast.
Even the word conjures up everything that a certain small ‘c’ conservative voter loves, an archaic word that harks back to a simpler time of boundaries. Oh-stare-ee-Tea! A time when everyone was in their right place and the “excesses of diversity” and the resultant “political correctness gone mad”, and the “layabouts with their oversized TVs and Sky TV and just sheer physical mass of sweaty over-fed waist lines” could be reigned in by a little hardship and doing without. It would probably do some people some good. That the financial tightening would bring with it a slightly sadistic or masochistic pinch, depending on whether you’d managed to be as prudent with your money as you should have been, was simply the little ripple of wind through the wheat. Austerity was good for us all.
Stoicism is deep in the British culture. Deep. Like at the synapses deep. When the Brit is unsure of what to do in a pinch, the stoic takes over, backs stiffen, people get to their feet and pain is endured without feeling or complaint. National psyches are obviously much more complex and changeable, however it’s revealing just how people speak of themselves and which platitudes people reach for to describe themselves as a nation. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomena of recent years must surely speak of a yearning for how we want to be perceived and for how we want to perceive ourselves.
In many ways, this stiff upper lip emoji is wonderful. I believe it’s why us Brits are so famed for our humour — when confronted by pain, in the face of adversity, to remove yourself from the situation and to be able to comment on it, or to continue within the lie is almost always funny to the person watching and is often even funnier to the person recounting their troubles afterwards. It’s uplifting to not be knocked down by what should defeat you, it’s cool to not be bowed by reality and to control how you react. For this to work though, the pain must be something that is endured, handled privately, and most importantly, at some point it has to stop. Britain’s cultural platitudes are not transformative like America’s “lemons to lemonade”. It’s more: “I’ll accept these lemons now, grumble about it a bit and dream of cider.”
Stoicism is only a constant state for a monk. It cannot become the natural state of things for a nation — it cannot become the norm. Which makes me wonder why our national identity is still tied to this emergency position taken up through the trauma of the Blitz. If a patient develops a coping strategy during an attack, it’s recognised as such, it’s not held up as the standard during times of peace or normality. Constantly being on a war footing, always steeling oneself against expected pain and sadness is not healthy. Life is for being addressed openly when you have the means to do so.
So what happens when millions of people in the UK are suffering and doing so in a silence that has not only become the norm but an expression of national character? We are depressed and unhappy people and so are our children. There are only so many times you can respond to that perspective tongue in cheek: “Well, say what you really mean!” and it still seem funny. If someone can’t get up from falling on a banana skin, it ceases to be a joke and just becomes awkward. It drifts into a morality play about what is the right thing to do when you are stuck and when you witness someone needing help. Everyone can only calmly carry on for so long until the legitimate question of what are we even carrying on for begins to surface. Shortly followed by, well, why are we in this position?
The economic crunch of 2008 was a international banana skin of historic proportions. We were doing good, rounding the last corner on the Rainbow Road, and then one innocuous default took us and nearly everyone else off the edge and into near oblivion. (Except Greece, who fell, are still falling, and now no one ever talks about them.) We and most of the West had a problem with debt that needed to be addressed. As such it presented an opportunity to try something new, to get angry and maybe rage over the mistakes that brought us here and to figure out what to do about it. A massive UK wide infrastructure investment was mooted and then seemed to disappear without clear reasons why it wasn’t pursued. Then Mervyn King appeared wearing a Calm Person Carrying On T-shirt, speaking mystical words of Quantative Easing and everyone got on board with the idea of simply printing more money and giving it to the banks. An economic Blitz had rained down, but we had found a way to feel better, simply by doing what we’d always done.
Which is now proving to be the source of our problems. Coming up to ten years later and rather than addressing the actual causes of the crash we have chosen to multiply them. We know this. We know that the Neo Liberal gamble tried either side of the Atlantic hasn’t worked for enough people. For the UK, it may have failed so utterly that we actually can’t get off this path — ideas that we can compete as a nation that sells anything other than debts seem fanciful and are soon corrected by market devaluations of sterling whenever such a future is proposed outside of the EU. This is why I keep suggesting to young people that they get out before their financially possessed by pensioners like this was a bad remake of the Jordan Peele movie.
What austerity manages to do, is to take the crutch of stoicism and twist it, away from the self and onto others. Really, austerity is stoicism for other people. It’s for other people to embrace “severe self-discipline, ascetic practices” and “severe simplicity”. To do anything else is to not “tighten one’s belt”, and with a country in as poor a financial position as the UK, a to desire to do anything else is positively reckless, uncivil and borderline traitorous.
I think one of the knock on effects of being a nation that no longer makes anything and is incapable of feeding itself is a sense that the things we have, have not been in anyway earned. Everyone knows that people are working hard, but it’s hard to point to something and say, we made that, we can account for what went into creating it. Austerity went some way to reconnect us to this sense of earning what we’d got by reevaluating it through doing without.
Sadly this hasn’t worked for the economy as reducing consumption in a nation that doesn’t make anything is only going to reduce the amount of money in. So, we’ve seen a reduction in the the amount of people in secure employment, a reduction in the amount of money invested by businesses and a general depression of wages. As a result, most people, i.e. the ones without assets, have less money in their pockets and a reduced spending power. Which means less income to be taxed and less income for the Treasury. So they too have to borrow to keep everything moving along and now you have a country in both massive personal and public debt. All against the backdrop of suppressed inflation. Which is half the reason why I say “We’re fucked!” whenever people ask me what I think is going on. Maybe it would be good to stop carrying on for a moment and actually take stock of where we are and debate where do we actually want to be.
The only time I’ve felt the country not define itself by the spirit of the Blitz was during the Olympics of 2012. For a brief moment the country had a shared national identity that did not reach for stoicism, and happily danced both with a stiff upper lip and without. This didn’t emanate from the Olympians, even though many lived up to the name, nor the showcase of hosting an international event, but in the energy as provided by the volunteers: “Carry On and Inspire A Generation”.
As I write this, people from all walks of life are marching through London on a Day of Rage. “Hanging on in quiet desperation” is slowly ceasing to be the English way. Protesters and volunteers have been energised by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and a sky blocked out by smoke and sadness. They’re far from calm, but there’s focus to their rage, and they don’t seem keen on carrying on with what’s been going on. Maybe we should all follow their lead.