Catastrophe capitalists and Dad’s Army nostalgists may be looking forward to the prospect of stockpiling food and rationing, but we should heed the wisdom of the Sex Pistols, writes Joyce McMillan.
This weekend, the Radio Times – that perennial broadcasting bible for traditional British telly-watchers – is going crazy over the 50th anniversary of Dad’s Army. Captain Mainwaring and his chaps are all over the front cover, and spread across eight pages inside; and on the air, BBC2 offers an entire Saturday evening of Dad’s Army, while UK Gold features a week of classic episodes.
When Dad’s Army first appeared in 1968, it was intended as a satire on the exploits of Britain’s wartime Home Guard, albeit an affectionate one; people used to laugh at its jolly spoof theme song, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?, as they revelled in that first moment – 23 years after the end of the Second World War – when it seemed OK to write a comedy series about at least some aspects of the conflict.
Yet now that more than twice as many years have passed since that first broadcast, the programme’s satirical intent has become smothered in an avalanche of nostalgia; and its continuing popularity has become a measure not only of the quality of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s original scripts, but of the extent to which Britain’s sense of identity has become stuck, and indeed almost fixated, on that defining moment 78 years ago, when – according to legend – a nation of plucky amateurs stood alone against the mechanised might of the Third Reich, and managed to face it down.
And I couldn’t help thinking of the Britain of Dad’s Army this week, as the debate over the possibility of a no-deal Brexit veered towards talk of stockpiling and ration cards. Of course our departure from the EU, which provides almost a third of our food, could seriously disrupt supplies; and of course, it’s likely that UK and EU governments will finally work together to prevent that outcome, since it benefits no-one except a few crazed – if sadly influential – catastrophe capitalists.
Yet as social media jokers posted photoshopped versions of 21st century ration cards, and produced entertaining catalogues of hoarded goods on hashtag #tweetyourstockpile, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that – far from helping Theresa May to take up a convincing negotiating stance – we were all somehow being forced to re-enact some nostalgic Brexiteer’s fever-dream of the moment when Britain was supposedly at its best, united against Johnny Foreigner, and facing up to hardships with a few good-humoured jokes.
To put it bluntly, there seems to be a British generation now aged between 55 and 75 – particularly a male establishment generation – many of whom just can’t get over the war; the fact that it happened, the fact that their fathers fought in it, the fact that they didn’t. And now, they seem downright exhilarated at the thought of plunging us all into this weird 21st century facsimile of it; made all the more strange by this week’s blazing temperatures across northern Europe, which might have been sent to remind us of the real enemy we now face, in the shape of our carbon-hungry economic system, and its impact on the planet.
Now these are complex issues, no question. Every nation has its myths, which can sometimes help to mobilise genuine progressive change. And Britain is clearly not the only country where the depth of the economic and environmental crisis now facing us has triggered a mood of militant denial, a reactionary impulse to slam up the drawbridge, and retreat into more reassuring times.
Yet 78 years ago, the Second World War was not some cuddly nostalgia trip, but a terrifying global conflict that seemed likely to end in death, starvation or defeat for all the enemies of Nazism; and if you want a reminder that even its aftermath was not the harmonious age of progress it sometimes seems, then you could do worse than head for Pitlochry, where Rodney Ackland’s intriguing 1949 play Before The Party, based on a story by Somerset Maugham, has just joined the summer season. The postwar middle-class English life it portrays has many of the qualities beloved by nostalgists, of course – the nice accents, the formal clothes, the dotty but darling mother, the world where only the servants drop their aitches.
Yet the purpose of Ackland’s play its to rip the veil from that much-mourned genteel scene, and to expose its rotten roots in centuries of virulently racist colonial exploitation, vicious class snobbery, and – at one point – a level of casual, social anti-semitism that fairly takes the breath away. It is 41 years since the Sex Pistols told us, in a historic moment of clarity, that there is no future in “England’s Dreaming” of a supposedly glorious past. And there is no future in it because it is based on a tissue of lies about the moral high ground on which England – and by extension Britain – is supposed to stand; when in fact we, including all four nations of the union, are just one state among others, with our moments of glory, our moments of shame, and our enduring need to come to terms with the past, and look towards a viable future.
What that future might be, of course, remains in the balance, this summer; but all around us now, from the strange twists and reversals of Donald Trump’s trade policy to the growing cries of distress from British employers trying to replace EU workers, we can see the mounting chaos that results when weak politicians begin to make policy on the basis of hate-mongering lies and myths rather than fact. And much though we may love the work of Perry and Croft, and the legendary characters they created for Dad’s Army, now is the time for Britain to wake up, smell the coffee, and place our history firmly in the past. Whether that means a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, or even the break-up of the UK itself, remains to be seen; but what is clear is that the longer half the nation remains lost in nostalgic dreams of a past that is gone, and perhaps never existed as we like to imagine it, the more likely we are to be overwhelmed and destroyed, in the turbulent decades to come.