Stuart Cartland

Stuart Cartland

Dr. Stuart Cartland is a teaching Fellow at Sussex uni.

Same old same old: Downton Abbey and the reactionary construction of exclusive Englishness
Monday, 25 April 2022 09:19

Same old same old: Downton Abbey and the reactionary construction of exclusive Englishness

Stuart Cartland argues that Downton Abbey is a conservative ideological vehicle that is far more than just a harmless, jolly romp

With the upcoming release of the new Downton Abbey movie in cinemas it’s time to look a little more closely at what this movie might actually represent – a very thinly veiled ideological construction of a conservative English utopia. Moreover, it is an overt representation of a very conservative and traditionalist national identity, operating through the guise of escapism and through the prism of a very particular socio-political construction of nostalgia.

Obsession with nostalgia is nothing new in the UK. However, what I am highlighting here is that big screen (or small screen) spectacles like the new Downton Abbey movie represent the construction of a mythical golden era to which only the very privileged few are granted access. It is a construction that operates as a conservative antidote to the realities of modern society where the working class can vote, women have a voice and people of colour are more than just tokenistic entertainers pandering to the whims of high society.

The movie resonates with conservative and traditionalist identity politics, which are informed and shaped by appeals to a particular type of nostalgia. Thus in September 2021 John Whittingdale (Minister of State for Media and Data) delivered a speech laying out the government’s reasons for privatising Channel 4, and said that the Conservatives will look to introduce requirements for public service broadcasters to introduce “distinctively British” content. Whittingdale, a strong supporter of Brexit and the privatisation of Channel 4, noted that shows such as Downton Abbey reflect “Britain and British values”.

The cosy familiarity of Englishness

At the heart of this conservative form of British values or Englishness is a vague sense of familiarity, or as Charlie Brooker sarcastically remarked, “the cosy familiarity of a world in which you could walk down an English high street without your ears getting bunged up with foreign accents, unless someone was doing a hilarious Gunga Din voice in order to mock the waiter in a curry house”.

Within this context, unsayable political and social commentary from the right becomes the sayable. It is repeated across the media, becoming part of an established wider discourse. A cosy world of scrapbook images of pre-woke, pre-political correctness, traditional values and authority, social hierarchies and ‘common sense’, is a world many may want to return to.

Althusser, Marx and Gramsci defined ideology as a body of norms and ideas that appear natural as a result of their continuous and mostly tacit promotion by the dominant forces in society. Conservative and traditionalist concepts of English national identity operate like this: ideological concepts of social hierarchies are linked to a narrative of tradition and a specific historicisation and subjective interpretation, and national identity is constructed by moving from the present into the past and locating the past in the present. England is thus nostalgically represented as the country of class privilege, social inequality, and a whitewashed selective and an ethno-nationalist sense of nation and citizenship, an illusion which is far removed from the realities of multiculturalism, sexual and racial equality in law, cosmopolitanism, urbanisation, urban decay, post-imperialism and a process of accelerated globalization.

This is how things are

Conservative accounts thus become normalized and dominant.. Narrative becomes the main form of what Gramsci referred to as cultural production, which comes to embody values and norms and establishes a hegemony or monopolisation of a conceptual field within a wider consciousness. An established social order is historically presented as a ‘way of doing things’, and becomes naturalised and made into the way ‘things really are’.

‘Common sense’, and ‘rational’ become synonymous with the conservative and traditionalist approach. Any deviation is presented as ‘radical’ or ‘illegitimate’ and the dominant narrative is disseminated through ideologically compatible media, social and cultural outlets. A liberal democratic understanding is brushed aside in favour of a conservative and traditionalist social and political approach.

The success of Downton Abbey is just one example of this. It operates as an ideological and socio-political conduit and conveyer in plain sight. Easily batted away as just good fun or good escapist entertainment, it actually normalizes a social and political history that is about Empire, aristocracy, the monarchy, the established church and deference to a very rigid and exclusive class hierarchy. This clearly chimes with a Tory view of history, culture and society, and on the myth of a benevolent elite granting carefully managed change.

A highly managed sense of cultural and historical continuity is essential when fostering a dominant account of English national identity. Indeed, national identity is not some essentialised badge which people carry around with them. It is the result of a complex interaction between historical memories, current social, political and cultural processes, and people’s own predilection for self-identification. It is also part of what can be called ‘mythscape’: the temporarily and spatially extended realm wherein the struggle for control of people’s memories and the formation of nationalist myths is debated, contested and subverted incessantly.

We English are great and you don’t belong here

The conservative and traditionalist narrative of Englishness is a romantic dream, based upon a fantasy of greatness. A romantic sense of greatness is also associated with a sense of uniqueness, purpose, entitlement and leadership.

Through symbolic representations of culture, tradition and class like Downton Abbey, a conservative perspective and ideological narrative seeks to explain the meaning of Englishness at a time of rapid historical, social and cultural change, one which has undermined the authority of tradition, place, and so-called ‘past glories’. As Stuart Hall stated:

“a shared national identity depends on cultural meanings which bind each member individually into the large national story…The national heritage is a powerful source of such meanings. It follows that those who cannot see themselves reflected in the mirror cannot properly belong”.

Indeed, those who cannot see themselves reflected in the screen cannot properly belong and therefore those politically and culturally specific constructions of national heritage, cultural meaning, relevance and identity purposely exclude those who do not fit in with traditionalist images of the nation.

In an age of ‘being competitive in a global market place’ and ‘brand image’, politicians, mainly but not only Conservatives, try to manipulate the past to sell a wholesome picture of England domestically and internationally, one that is detached from a reality that most of us can relate to. The contested meaning of national identity in an increasingly globalized world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, Brexit and large-scale immigration has required a feverish construction of image built upon an ideological myth.

The England sold to the world – and more importantly to the English –is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels – the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust’s stately homes, Waitrose and farmers’ markets. TV programmes which help build this cultural narrative as well as Downton Abbey include Victoria, Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat, the Great British Bake-off, Location, Location, Location, and Poldark. In the cinema, films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park, the Young Victoria, the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, The Queen et al also seek to represent an aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within historical ‘golden eras’. 

This sort of cultural nostalgia and fantasising operates as a counter narrative and conservative antidote to contemporary cultural reflections such as the BLM and the challenge to public monuments that celebrate slave traders, not to mention wider concerns around gender based violence and institutionalised racism. It also plays upon a nostalgic sense of loss, a loss felt not only in terms of identity but also in terms of a particular mode of living, associated with place, class, lifestyle and values.

A world where people knew their place

Despite the conservative and rightwing claims that the media has a leftwing bias, Downton Abbey is a long running television show and movie franchise that is directed by Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes, a Conservative peer of the House of Lords and a firmly established member of the aristocracy. Simon Schama has described Downton Abbey as a “silvered tureen of snobbery” based on an overtly right wing novel by Evelyn Waugh that celebrates country houses, the upper class and a nostalgia for a world where “people knew their bloody place”. He also commented that, “nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia”. Critical comments like that are a reaction to the overwhelming amount of television based upon a cultural dash to an imaginary sanctum of certainties, of a social and cultural world built upon rigid inequalities.

Downton Abbey and other TV programmes and films are culturally exclusive: they deliberately exclude those who do not fit the constructed, traditionalist images or values of the nation. Such mythical cultural representations have no relevance to the experience of the majority of the population – but the danger lies not only in the fact that politicians and public figures sell this image but that the electorate or the viewer might actually buy into it.

Statues, Context and Historical Narrative: Statues Glorifying Colonialism are a Bad Idea!
Tuesday, 06 July 2021 14:17

Statues, Context and Historical Narrative: Statues Glorifying Colonialism are a Bad Idea!

Published in Visual Arts

Stuart Cartland discusses the recent attacks on statues in Canada

The toppling of the statues of British monarchs in Canada recently is a hugely symbolic moment of reflection on the legacy of British colonialism. It is also feeding a wider anti-woke backlash from the right.

Following on from the toppling, and subsequent throwing of the Colston statue into Bristol harbour last year, the recent toppling of statues of British monarchs in Canada come as poignant, symbolic acts that coincide with the uncovering of hundreds of remains from the residential school system in Canada. These places sought to culturally assimilate indigenous children who were, more often than not, forced to attend. The toppling of these public monuments represents a reckoning with the very real horrors of colonialism and empire upon the First Nations people and seeks to challenge dominant narratives concerning the past.

We often walk past or don’t even recognise public statues. Who they are and what they represent are often so taken for granted and unchallenged that they are just part of a passive acceptance of social and cultural history. However, until one is defaced or toppled this prompts a contested ideologically motivated defence of what they might represent, and to who and if they should be celebrated or glorified at all. Indeed, for there to be a very large public statue of someone in a particular location this indicates a dominant and very public celebration of that person, what they did or an era they represent and a very particular narrative associated with them.

Statues are symbolic representations not objective fact, although this has been deliberately conflated by the political right. By the same token, history is not objective fact but reinterpretation of tenuous links to past events viewed through the prism of the contemporary world. Nevertheless, statues are rejected because what they symbolically represent is rejected. So a statue of Queen Elizabeth II is toppled in Canada in the twenty-first century not because she is a slave-owning, empire-promoting colonialist seeking to culturally obliterate or assimilate First Nations peoples, but because statues of British monarchs represent (in this case) colonialism – and not only that but the impact empire and colonialism had (and continues to has) upon First Nations people.

The toppling of these statues is thus a huge symbolic action which signifies a very public highlighting of the rejection of colonialism and racial injustice, highlights the hugely destructive legacy and impact colonialism and empire has had, and signifies an end to passive acceptance and glorification of British colonialism. For many, this challenges an accepted understanding of the past and structures of power in the present.

Although the political right will be outraged at the toppling and defacement of statues of British monarchs (past and present) the point isn’t necessarily a rejection of the British monarchy. Indeed, the Queen as head of state in Canada still carries much widespread support; nevertheless it is what these monarchs represent – a system of colonial power and abuse, the systematic destruction of indigenous culture and communities and the imposition of British rule and cultural assimilation. Moreover, the recent statue-toppling also symbolically represent the contemporary and overt rejection of ‘business as usual’ in terms of passive acceptance of British and colonial legacy as being ‘good’ – it was not and largely is still not good for First Nations people, not only in Canada but also other former colonial possessions such as Australia.

Again, this will be rejected by the right as woke revisionist madness and extremism. Any contemporary comment on a legacy of the British empire that is anything other than an over-simplified glorification is unacceptable. Yet this long-held and dominant narrative must be challenged for the mythological and ideological obfuscation that it represents. The uncovering of the remains in Canada of hundreds of indigenous victims of a colonial system of abuse and cultural genocide is not a shock, and comes on the back of the expansion into the mainstream dialogue of the BLM movement and a highlighting of the extremes of white supremacism and historical, systematic inequalities. These structural injustices must be exposed and challenged.

Cancel Enid Blyton! The familiar, tired tropes of GB News and anti-Woke media
Friday, 18 June 2021 12:11

Cancel Enid Blyton! The familiar, tired tropes of GB News and anti-Woke media

Stuart Cartland on Conservative populism and anti-Woke TV: how the launch of GB News represents updated versions of familiar, tired tropes.

GB News represents an updated version or equivalent to the familiar and well-worn tropes of anti-political correctness of previous years. The political right dominates British media outlets and the political terrain within England in particular, and GB News symbolises the massive right-wing anti-Woke backlash that we have witnessed in recent times, particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement.

It has long been a social and political theme of the right to attack by projecting a sense of being under attack, and thereby reassert dominant ruling-class hegemony. Familiar themes (or rather fantasies) and tropes are wheeled out such as ‘common sense’ and the ‘ordinary person on the street’, which are positioned as being under attack from an aggressive sense of moral modern political correctness and inclusivity. It is also implied that a particular way of national life or culture is somehow under attack, or at risk of being cancelled and erased.

Cancel Enid Blyton!

Turn on GB News and many things might grab your attention, however as with all right-wing media outlets hyperbolic claims or headlines are their stock-in-trade in terms of gaining attention and firing up the audience. On my very first glance I was not disappointed. Enid Blyton, a popular twentieth century children’s writer and paragon of British cultural dominance was headlined: ‘Enid Blyton to be cancelled’.

Headlines for stories such as ‘Enid Blyton to be cancelled’ represent two crucial elements of conservative right-wing populism, nostalgia and a sense of being under attack. Increasingly over recent years (but a common theme of the political right for a long time) there is a sense of social and cultural decay and a pining for times of past glory or ‘the good old days’.

Social or cultural elements that appeal to an older generation in terms of childhood are said to be under attack by an updated P.C police. This acts to enrage but also create a myth of how things were better back then, when you could say what you liked or thought, where everyone was white and spoke English. This also has wider links and connotations to a sense of national glory, dominance and empire. These are all ideologically created myths, but are presented as reality, as truth.

The ‘Cancel Enid Blyton’ myth shows how ruling-class cultural hegemony works. Even according to English Heritage her work is racist and xenophobic. But although what she represents has no place in twenty-first century British society, GB News – just like all other right-wing commentators and mouthpieces – uses these ideological myths to make sense of the present, to deny the racism, sexism and other catastrophic problems we face such as massive social and economic inequality and environmental disaster. The suggestion is that these problems are somehow being foisted upon us, not that we have a responsibility to tackle them. Outlets like GB News promote denial of these fundamental challenges, and also uses them as a tool to prove how the mythical ordinary person of the street and common sense are under attack, and that Great British culture and history is at risk of being cancelled. The message is that luckily for you ,GB News is here to speak up and resist this outrage.

Within this very purposeful ideological re-organisation and over-simplification of the world, there is also the veneer of post-Brexit triumphalism alongside the paradox of a failure of Brexit promises and reality. Again, it is suggested that forces in the modern world have undermined Brexit, but also that Brexit represents a triumph of common sense and a rejection of the forces of modernism.

woke 2

GB News symbolises an approach to news which is very Farage-esque (indeed, he was one of the first invited guests on the channel), a two-fingers-up to those politicians and a wider society which is pandering to Woke inclusivity. It follows the oft-repeated claims of left-wing bias in the media and particularly against the BBC, which are never substantiated with evidence. It crucially reinforces the familiar and well-worn narrative of left-wing bias, and a society that is dominated by a cosmopolitan, gay, Muslim, black, disabled, female agenda.

GB News has deliberately and proudly positioned and labelled itself as being anti-Woke. Its opening days were beset by continual technical problems and incompetence, yet on its opening day it gained more viewers than BBC News or Sky News. This symbolism can’t be overlooked, it represents an ideologically motivated attempt to dominate public opinion with reactionary, anti-Woke themes. These themes have also been articulated by a host of senior Conservative politicians, and rest on a pernicious mixture of utter incompetence and familiar, tired tropes powered by fantasy and blame.

staywokelogo

Rule Britannia and the shameful arrogance of right-wing class politics
Wednesday, 26 August 2020 14:31

Rule Britannia and the shameful arrogance of right-wing class politics

Published in Music

Stuart Cartland criticises the jingoistic response to the BBC's decisions about Rule Britannia. Image above: Aboriginal prisoners, Australia

If as a nation we are to be serious about addressing racism and legacies of oppression then the recent furore about the possibility of dropping Rule Britannia from the BBC's Last Night of the Proms is a very serious indication of how little change has been made and how far we have to go.

Let’s be absolutely clear here, a song that glorifies empire and the systematic subjugation of millions of people should not just be viewed as outdated and distasteful but instead as shameful. Indeed, it should be viewed much as Deutschland Über Allës is viewed within Germany, the outrageous racial connotations it implies and the shameful nationalistic context it is from.

The problem here is that those on the right have always viewed Britain and its related traditionalism as being an exception. Empire and colonialism are part of the very qualities that many conservatives and nationalists are proud and boastful of however this jingoistic facade is untenable especially as these very qualities directly include the slave trade and the annihilation of millions of subjugated peoples around the world who were in the vast majority had brown skin.

Again, Rule Britannia is not just an outdated, ill-fitting song for the twenty-first century that jingoistic nationalists and traditiono-philes might point to when imagining a sense of a mythical past of British greatness, it is a song that actually refers to slavery, this is within the context of the pioneering world slave trading nation – Great Britain! This is ‘not just a song’ a ‘bit of pomp’ or harmless, this is a cultural and political barometer. 

Of course, this has been an absolute boon to the right-wing press and the political populism of political-correctness-gone-mad. However what this does is actually uncover how the mainstream right and Tory types like Boris Johnson really feel in terms of a cultural reckoning in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, beyond any superficial tokenistic slogans and PR induced platitudes.

Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly stated in response that:

it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, about our culture, and we we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.

Of course it is easy for him to make these crass claims when it is his sense of tradition, culture and history under the spotlight – but this is partly the point. This shameful arrogance of class and racially based identity politics, situated within a history or exploitation, subjugation and a misplaced sense of glory and pride, is woefully outdated and shameful – but also deeply offensive.

It shows how much of Britain is still unwilling to fully comes to terms with the reality of empire and move away from the tired and inadequate conservative right-wing narrative of pomp and glory.

If we are to be serious in confronting social and cultural oppression in its many forms, then what better way start than confronting a sense of self-inflated nationalistic sense of arrogance and entitlement. Of course, the problem being here is that these are exactly the qualities of those who are in power in this country and those that are controlling the narrative on this very issue. Until then songs that glorify empire, subjugation and oppression will have a place in twenty-first century Britain.