Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before: A Study in the Politics and Aesthetics of English MiseryRoundup
tags: British history, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson, The Smiths, Morrissey
Owen Hatherley is the author of several books including The Ministry of Nostalgia and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. He is the Culture Editor of Tribune.
The first record I played after the December 2019 election was The Smiths. I’m not entirely sure why – something about the particular misery of that event, and the sense that we would now have to suffer through a long, deep slog without an obvious endpoint, and the feeling that England and Englishness had won some sort of decisive victory. It always seemed improbable, the notion that Britain – by now, with the non-participation of Scotland – was about to embark on an experiment in multicultural radical social democracy, and if you want to luxuriate in the awfulness of England, that’s what the entire sound and aesthetic of The Smiths was all about. Nostalgia, guilt, repression, a scab-pulling adolescence dragged well into pension age.
The other reason was to try and understand something of what had just happened, because the political trajectory of Steven Morrissey seemed to mirror that of large swathes of the North of England – from a kind of anti-Thatcherite left to a proudly racist, little-Englander right. Here perhaps was the location of a key to the events, more useful than George Orwell or any “condition of England” novel – an awful meeting of the pop culture of affluence, the refusal of maturity, legislated nostalgia, endemic racism and aestheticised bleakness.
It is conventional to use the nostalgia for the Second World War as an explanation for the particular kind of nationalism that has gripped England and Wales in the last decade or more. And the tropes of WWII, some of them wholly invented, have indeed been dominant in post-New Labour Britain-without-Scotland, from Boris Johnson’s conscious modelling of his persona on Winston Churchill – who now has an entire section of books to himself in the main high street bookstore, Waterstone’s – to the revival of the unproduced Keep Calm and Carry On poster.
Yet, the actual generation that fought the Second World War – and subsequently built some kind of welfare state – is mostly dead. The overwhelming generational politics of the referendum and the 2017 and 2019 elections, with their supermajorities for the left among the under 40s and absolute hegemony for the right among the over-60s, is a matter of a profound political shift among people born between 1945 and 1965; as Susan Watkins points out, even Johnson is Churchill with a “Beatles mop”.
The importation of the American term “boomers” removes the “baby boom” from the original terminology and just shortens it to those that were born into the boom – into an era of full employment, abundant cheap housing and free education, in the war’s aftermath. But if you spend your time scouring the many Facebook groups where those of this cohort discuss their disdain for the young, there is no sense whatsoever that they feel in any way privileged, or the beneficiaries of historical good fortune. We had it shit, so should they. And who better to explain this scenario than Morrissey?
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