Nostalgia: Britain’s favourite destination is the past

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It appears to be a puzzle to millions, but not to me. I believe that I can tell you in one word why the UK voted to leave the European Union, and that word isn’t racism or xenophobia, but nostalgia.

In fact I’d go further and say that it is the driving force behind just about every aspect of life in this country today.

Why else do most of us revere our continuing mediaeval monarchy, and seek out the church for life’s rites of passage?

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“A young country”?

Why does the National Trust have more than four million members, despite its increasingly politically correct agenda?

Why are there heritage steam railways all over the place, and TV schedules replete with period costume dramas, revivals and repeats? Plus those endlessly dreary “remember when?” shows in which assorted Z-list celebrities drone on about how great selected programmes, groups, festivals or decades used to be.

Last weekend I spent a very agreeable Saturday afternoon at a crowded rally full of people gawping fondly at steam traction engines and road rollers, superannuated commercial vehicles and cars, and riding on 1930s fairground rides.

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Then I went home and decked myself in Union flag bunting to watch The Last Night of the Proms on TV.

If I’d turned on the TV on Sunday evening my choice would have lain between Victoria and Poldark. On Monday it was 1990s nostalgia-driven Cold Feet. Re-runs of Dad’s Army continue to attract large audiences, and the BBC has even resurrected Mrs Slocombe’s tired old pussy through its recreation of classic sitcoms of the 1960s and 70s.

Mrs Hann, along with millions of others, continues to pine for Downton Abbey. I’ve never watched it, and never will, but The Great British Bake-Off sounds to me like nostalgia writ large, and soon we will be able to be doubly nostalgic about its halcyon days on the BBC.

Musically, we love tribute bands and re-runs of Top of the Pops (shorn of Jimmy Savile, obviously), while at the other end of the musical spectrum the operas that sell fastest are classic productions of the most famous works of Verdi and Puccini.

If asked, we claim to love eating locally grown food bought from independent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and Arkwright-style corner shops, and to despise the superstores and discounters where we actually do most of our shopping.

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I can guarantee that there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the last milkman has chinked his way into history, along with the last printed newspaper and delivery boy.

Just as tears were shed when British Home Stores closed its doors for the last time, having been besieged with eager buyers during a closing down sale brought about by … a consistent lack of shoppers (as well as a fair dollop of proprietorial greed and management incompetence).

Politically, nostalgia has surely driven the rise of UKIP, which in turn precipitated the decision to call the European referendum. While I can think of no other rational explanation for many recent Conservative policy initiatives such as the mooted revival of grammar schools.

The rise and non-fall of Jeremy Corbyn is also an essentially backward-looking phenomenon, pining for the era of union-dominated mines and shipyards, a mythical golden age of well-funded state healthcare, and gloriously unequal Parliamentary constituencies.

Now, saying that a vote for Brexit was nostalgic is far from saying that British independence represented the past and European unity the future. Having quite deliberately put the economic cart before the political horse, the EU is doomed to fail miserably and spectacularly unless it either abandons the euro or becomes precisely the sort of United States that Remainiacs dismissed during the referendum campaign as ludicrous scaremongering.

As I wrote here and elsewhere over many years, when you’re on board an aircraft that is clearly destined to crash, it is a positive dereliction of duty not to make use of a parachute if one is offered to you.

So for me Brexit was an entirely rational decision in the best interests of my children. But behind it, I confess, was also the appeal of blue passports, of being able to see decisions made (and reversed) by our own elected politicians at Westminster, and of not having to kowtow to the sort of barmy EU directive that still sees nearly every jar of jam sold by the imperial pound, but insists that only the weight “454g” may appear on the label.

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Is it healthy and rational for us to be constantly looking over our shoulders at the past, rather than preparing for the future? Well, the past has the great advantage of visibility; we cannot hope to see what is coming (apart from the certainty of death, which is hardly inviting).

For Britons, we also look back on times when our country was indisputably the world’s leader: the first to industrialise, the greatest military power, the driving force behind the largest empire humanity has yet created.

Even those deluded enough to believe, like Tony Blair, that this is “a young country” cannot seriously hope to recapture that global supremacy.

Nor can Venice ever hope to reclaim the glories of its past, yet it would still be my strong first choice of where I would choose to live if I ever had to leave England.

We are inconsistent, of course. We secretly enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, like pain-free surgery and dentistry, cheap jet travel, mobile telephony and online shopping. But even as we step into our electric driverless cars in a few years’ time many of us will be pining for the rattle of a diesel engine, pop-out trafficators and possibly even a man walking in front of us with a red flag.

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This week’s new £5 note. I rest my case.

If you want to sell anything in England, don’t bang on it about its novelty or potential for the future. Pretend it’s a revival of something from the past.

That’s what the Leave campaign did. And that, surely, is why they won.

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