In this interview, Francesca Melhuish claims that nostalgia played a crucial role on both sides of the Brexit referendum.
To better understand British Euroscepticism, and the different factors that made the Leave campaign succeed, Melhuish looks at colonial as well as imperial nostalgia, but also at the role of ‘anti-nostalgic’ nostalgia. Moreover, we discuss the role of Dominic Cummings, the idealization of the past in times of crisis, Captain Tom, Winston Churchill, ethno-nationalism, and much more.
Enjoy the read…
1) Francesca, can you tell us what fascinates you about Euroscepticism, and in particular British Euroscepticism? How did you decide to study this topic?
I have always found Euroscepticism to be a fascinating route into thinking about broader themes of national history, identity and culture. Practically speaking, I was introduced to the topic by my tutor at Masters level, Seçkin Barış Gülmez, and I have never looked back. So much insightful research has already been done on British Euroscepticism in particular – perhaps unsurprisingly as Britain has long been known as Europe’s ‘awkward partner’. Work by scholars such as Ben Wellings, Helen Baxendale, Michael Kenny, Nick Pearce and Oliver Daddow got me thinking specifically about the empire heritage of British Euroscepticism, and about the multiple political projects that Britain’s ‘island story’ of unlikely exceptionalism and ‘greatness’ authorises. I then became interested in how remarkably persistent these narratives have proved over time, leading me to make my central contribution by exploring their emotional power through the lens of nostalgia.
2) There is a long history of British objections to European integration based on both identity and emotions. In your work, you claim that nostalgia can help us to improve our understanding of the nature and persistence of historically rooted Euroscepticism. How is nostalgia useful to understand the line of conflict between the United Kingdom and the rest of the continent? Specifically, how do the imperial and colonial forms of nostalgia contribute to the formation of British Euroscepticism?
Nostalgia is useful for understanding British Euroscepticism in two ways. First, it helps us to account for the motivations and alliances of Eurosceptic campaigners themselves. Psychological and sociological studies of nostalgia tell us that the emotion is closely linked to periods of crisis and change. The disruption and uncertainty caused by major life or political events requires an emotional response that it both soothing and encouraging. Nostalgia provides this by conjuring rose-tinted images of a superior past that suggest pathways into a better future. These images are so emotionally powerful, as vectors of comfort and inspiration in disorienting times, that they often persist.
In the context of Euroscepticism, nostalgia provides answers to questions of British crisis and decline – the blame for which campaigners place squarely at the door of the EU. Put differently, nostalgia draws together Eurosceptics in ‘emotional communities’ that work to resolve the perceived crisis of national decline by advocating for EU withdrawal, supported by emotive visions of how British history has prepared the country for a future of renewed independence.
Nostalgia is therefore also a useful lens for analysing the discourses – that is, the campaign messages and images – advanced by Brexiteers. The British empire has long been noted as an important reference point in Eurosceptic discourse, as I highlighted earlier. I link these references to imperial nostalgia – the longing to reactivate the benefits of Britain’s former global status – and to colonial nostalgia – the desire to reconnect with Britain’s former colonies. Unpacking empire nostalgias this way allows us to be more specific about how imperial and colonial remnants linger in contemporary politics, encouraging us to explore a range of Brexiteer proposals covering diverse policy areas including trade and immigration. The specific focus on nostalgia helps us to explain how Brexit campaigners were able to generate emotionally resonant images of a post-Brexit Britain that were underpinned by the reassuring and enticing possibilities offered by resurrecting and reimagining versions of the country’s empire past.
3) You mention that—quite paradoxically—nostalgia can be deployed to construct a certain idea of the future. How does that work? And what is an ‘anti-nostalgic’ type of nostalgia?
To understand how anti-nostalgic nostalgia arises we have to first consider the origins of nostalgia itself. In the 17th Century, nostalgia was thought of as an illness brought about by absence from one’s ‘homeland’, with embodied, medical symptoms for the sufferer. A case of nostalgia could be fatal. Though the term has lost some of the intensity of its clinical origins – it is now often diluted to refer to a metaphorical sense of homesickness, rather than to a physical illness – it has retained the unfavourable connotations of a medical disease. In contemporary politics, nostalgia is often interpreted as an unfortunate form of pessimism, weakness and backwardness. For some, such as the Brexit campaigners I interviewed for my PhD research, it is extremely offensive to be ‘accused’ of nostalgia.
The persistent, pejorative meaning of nostalgia can lead to emotional formations that are, superficially at least, ‘anti-nostalgic’. We see this, for example, in the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign, which insisted that it provided a ‘forward-looking’ vision for an independent Britain outside the EU. Unlike nostalgia, future orientation tends to be praised for its association with more positive qualities of foresight, optimism and progress. I argue, however, that such narratives are never purely forward-looking, but remain subtly underwritten by nostalgic images of the past.
In the case of Vote Leave, this anti-nostalgic form of nostalgia was notably expressed in campaign materials that highlighted the futuristic post-Brexit promise of science and technology while drawing subtly on the centrality of these categories to the commission of the British empire and Britain’s accompanying world role. In this sense, Vote Leave was not simply saying that it wanted to ‘go back’ to the imperial and colonial ‘glory days’, but that it wanted Britain to reconnect with an increasingly enlightened, innovative and global path (implicitly associated with empire) that EU membership had prematurely curtailed. This is what I refer to as the campaign’s advocacy of a ‘past perfect future’, concerned not with a straightforward restoration of the past, but with a desire to reinvigorate and extend a particular image of the past that had never fully come to fruition.
4) Do you believe that one of the factors behind the defeat of the Remain campaign consists in its lack of nostalgia, or they simply relied on a less appealing type of nostalgia?
It is a common misconception that the Remain campaign was not nostalgic. Again, I think this is due to the unfavourable connotations associated with nostalgia, which hundreds of years ago was diagnosed as a medical disease and has been viewed as a form of illness ever since. The desire to position Remain as the ‘good’ side and Leave as the ‘bad’ side of the referendum debate has led to many mistaken claims that Brexiteers were the only nostalgic culprits. Yet as scholars such as Robert Saunders have demonstrated, the Remain campaign also employed nostalgia – and, notably, empire nostalgia – both during the referendum and in the decades leading up to it. Such nostalgia exhibited itself in claims that Britain’s empire history had set the country up as a natural leader in Europe, where it could also represent the Commonwealth in EU institutions.
Given the Remain campaign’s ultimate defeat, it does seem that this type of nostalgia was ultimately less appealing (though we should not forget just how close the referendum result was). I think there are at least a couple of reasons for this. First, though Remain and Leave both drew on core themes of empire nostalgia, Leave was the only one that was able to tie this to a particular image of an independent and self-sufficient Britain, with all of its implications of masculinised strength. Importantly, this narrative could also call on another longstanding strand of Eurosceptic nostalgia centred on memories of Britain ‘standing alone’ during the Second World War. Strands of empire and war memory combined to give the impression that Britain had all of the historical resources it needed to make Brexit a success. Any criticisms of this position were dismissed as cowardly attempts to ‘talk Britain down’.
While these forms of nostalgia allowed the Leave campaign to present a superficially ‘positive’ and ‘optimistic’ case for Brexit, another part of its strategy focused on emphasising the risks of remaining in the EU. Though Brexiteers frequently accused Remainers of peddling ‘Project Fear’, the Leave side was perhaps even more guilty of scaremongering. By repeatedly insisting that ‘there is no status quo’, the Vote Leave campaign argued that the European leadership position endorsed by Remain was no longer available, nor desirable. The EU’s responses to recent Eurozone and migration crises were used as evidence that Britain was being increasingly marginalised in Europe. Having cultivated a sense of crisis around Britain’s position in the EU, nostalgia for an independent, historically underwritten future could then take hold. Deeming the Remain campaign’s nostalgic preferences for continued EU membership incredible, the Leave side specified its own nostalgic solution as the only viable option – a comforting and inspiring vision where Britain would not be reliant on Europe, but on the experiences of its more expansive and more glorious past.
5) Who is Dominic Cummings? Can you describe the origins and impact of his vision where science and technology coexist with hints of colonial nostalgia?
Dominic Cummings is a professional political campaigner and political consultant. He was famously the Campaign Director for Vote Leave – the official Brexit advocate during Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum – and was deemed important enough to be portrayed by Hollywood actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a film about the vote. He has a long history of campaigning against Britain’s commitment to European integration – on specific issues such as proposed membership of the single currency, as well as the overarching question of membership of the EU itself.
Following Vote Leave’s victory on referendum day, Cummings retreated to the political wilderness before returning as a key figure in the 2019 general election campaign and subsequent government of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Having helped Johnson to power and insinuated himself, for a time, at the heart of Downing Street operations, Cummings became extremely critical of the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He resigned his advisory position in late 2020 to tweet behind-the-scenes revelations and advocate for ‘regime change’ within government. (It should be noted, of course, that Cummings’ own actions during the early stages of the pandemic have also been called into question, particularly during the notorious Barnard Castle scandal, where he was accused of breaking government lockdown rules which he helped to set).
Science and technology have always been central to Cummings’ political worldview. He has previously called for Britain’s education curriculum to be reoriented towards STEM subjects to better prepare the country for 21st Century life. He has similarly called for the civil service to be reformed to prioritise the support of scientific advancement (including through new funding schemes) and for its institutions to adopt more ‘scientific’ ways of operating (including by employing an ‘evidence-based’ approach and working in ‘disruptive’ small teams). During the referendum, Cummings argued that Britain’s membership of the EU was a major impediment to making these changes. In particular, he portrayed the EU as restrictive and inept when it comes to the funding of science programmes, and culturally incompatible with Britain’s allegedly more ‘forward-looking’ and naturally inventive spirit.
This is where nostalgia comes in. For all that Cummings lays claim to a ‘relentlessly future-oriented’ vision for Britain, it is one that is supported by subtle nostalgias for Britain’s empire past. We can see this in his framing of science and technology as answers to persistent questions about Britain’s post-imperial world role. Cummings and the broader Vote Leave campaign argued that Brexit would enable Britain to place itself back at the heart of a global network of science and technology, allowing it to rediscover the innovative outlook attributed to famous British scientists like Charles Darwin and Alan Turing and spur transformative and ‘world-leading’ inventions. While empire was scarcely mentioned explicitly, such phrasing suggested a nostalgic desire for Britain to resurrect the pivotal global status it had gained during the age of empire and slowly lost. These are common themes for those who have long advocated for contemporary international cooperation through the Anglosphere – a largely informal post-imperial trade and security network, with Britain and its former white settler colonies (in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States) typically positioned at its core.
Of these Anglosphere countries, Cummings has a particular fondness for the United States that reveals further aspects of empire nostalgia. He has argued that Britain’s political institutions are more compatible with those of America than those of the EU, and even claimed that the ‘Anglo-American system’ is more scientific as it is founded on longstanding legal frameworks that allow for flexibility in the face of new evidence – a process known in scientific communities as ‘error correction’. Such historic institutional similarity is a core reason why proponents of the Anglosphere think that its member countries are well-suited to work together in the 21st Century. Institutional similarities are, however, also a euphemism for racial similarities, linked to a colonial form of nostalgia that longs to renew cooperation primarily between the British empire’s white settler populations, and which obscures the racial violence that was central to colonisation.
During the referendum, we saw nostalgic colonial themes play out in Vote Leave campaign materials that unreflexively praised the heroism of historic white military-imperial figures and in calls for a restrictive post-Brexit immigration system, administered ‘scientifically’ through a points-based method that would score migrants according to cultural-racial criteria like language ability. Such schemes were particularly reminiscent of colonial practices due to the empire’s (unfounded) use of science in determining differences between races. By defining what counts as ‘civilised’, these policies link back to Cummings’ implicitly nostalgic regard for Anglo-American institutions, which were a subtle code for racial coherence and for the civilised ‘good governance’ that Britain had once transported around the world.
The question of Cummings’ impact in relation to his nostalgic views on science and technology is harder to answer. These views exceed any individual, linking to broader, longstanding themes found in the political networks surrounding the Anglosphere, as I highlighted earlier. Cummings himself has also suggested that Vote Leave’s claims about science and technology were not the core issues that cut through to voters on referendum day. Nevertheless, they have continued to exert influence in the Brexit debate due to their centrality in facilitating an imperially-rooted ‘Global Britain’ (think of the many technological solutions that have been proposed for smoothing post-Brexit trade flows across borders) and in curtailing ‘undesirable’ migration (think of the government’s latest racialised points-based immigration system). Science and technology have also returned to the fore of British politics thanks to the Covid pandemic, with nostalgic inflections that echo core Brexit themes, as I expand on below. In this context, Cummings has controversially credited Brexit and former Vote Leave colleagues with facilitating Britain’s scientifically-driven vaccine taskforce. Though he is currently out of government, he regularly tweets and blogs on scientific themes and I would not be surprised if he one day returns to formal politics as an advocate for these issues.
6) Now, several years after the ‘Brexit referendum’, do you think that nostalgia has become less relevant in the public debate? Has it been replaced by other rhetorical and emotional devices?
Nostalgia’s relevance is only increasing. This should not surprise us. As I noted earlier, nostalgia is a common psychological and social response to disruptive periods of crisis and change – with journeys into an idealised past acting as a source of both comfort and inspiration for the future. Given the intersecting crises that we now face, nostalgia has become a habitual component of contemporary politics.
Two examples spring to mind. First, the Covid-19 pandemic provided especially ripe terrain for nostalgic themes to persist in a new environment. In Britain, the pandemic was continually framed as analogous to the last major crisis – the Second World War – a period that had also animated the Brexit debate. 1940s Blitz spirit informed how Britons were supposed to act, guided by the soothing tones of Dame Vera Lynn and spurred on by the endeavours of national heroes like Captain Tom Moore and ‘frontline’ public service workers. Nostalgic science and technology also re-emerged in the reassuring presence of ‘Nightingale’ hospitals and galvanising claims of Britain’s ‘world-beating’ response to the virus. It is these themes that I am particularly interested in exploring in my next project.
Secondly, nostalgia has also been central to how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is framed in Britain. Venerated Second World War leader Winston Churchill continues to cast a long shadow. A long-time admirer of Churchill, Prime Minister Johnson has increasingly attempted to replicate his stoic image in support of Ukraine, including on trips to Kyiv. Most notably, Ukrainian President Zelensky also echoed Churchill, as well as Shakespeare, in an address to the UK Parliament where he called for further British assistance in his country’s fight for survival. This suggests that the nostalgic chords of national narratives are also available for others to use in attempts to influence the countries that originated them.
7) Beyond the British case, it seems to me that many political leaders who promote a nationalistic identity exploit nostalgia. I think, for example, about Russia, Hungary and Turkey among others. A populist vision of history tends to present the current leader as the saviour that redeems the people, restore its former glory, and builds a future where the conspiring elites cannot harm the population. Do you think there is a general tendency to build nationalism upon nostalgic views of the past across the world? Is this tendency changing over time?
I do agree that nationalist narratives are inextricably bound up with nostalgia. We see this in countries across Europe and beyond, as you mention. What has received much less attention is the different strands of nostalgic nationalism that often coexist. On the one hand, ethno-nationalism is escalating, allied to nostalgic language that advocates the direct return to a simpler, typically racially homogenous time. This is expressed in rallying cries akin to common British discourses of “Take Back Control” and “We want our country back!”, which suggest the backward-looking temporality of conventional nostalgia.
Another strand of nostalgic nationalism appears more concerned with the future, and therefore corresponds to what I call anti-nostalgic nostalgia. In addition to Britain, research has noted this form of nostalgia in the nationalist narratives of countries such as Hungary, Ecuador and China, which typically advocate not for a simple restoration of former glory but for the reclamation of an historic ‘revolutionary’ and forward-looking spirit, required to take the country into a new era.
How is this changing over time? My instinct is that while ethno-nationalist nostalgias are becoming more brazen and identifiable, particularly as politicians around the world stoke fears of migration crisis, ‘anti-nostalgic’ forms of nostalgic nationalism are able to fly under the radar, exerting influence in subtler ways that are only infrequently commented upon. More comparative research is needed to understand how these strands of nostalgic nationalism interact in different contexts, and how these relations evolve over time.
Dr Francesca Melhuish received her PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick in June 2021. She is currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham. Her published research engages the emotional and spatio-temporal politics of EU integration and its contestation. She is now focused on turning her doctoral thesis into a book and developing a new project about the role of nostalgia in Britain’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.