Stuart Cartland

Stuart Cartland

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

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.

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture
Monday, 16 December 2019 10:57

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stuart Cartland argues that the Conservative victory is based on their control of the national narrative, achieved partly through control of popular cultural experiences

It must be understood that it is not just the message of ‘get Brexit done’ that provided such an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives, although that is what it clearly appears to be. As surprising at the Conservative victory might seem to many, particularly where the Conservatives picked up the votes to win in traditional Labour strongholds, elections are not won on practical manifesto pledges but rather through dominating the national narrative, including dominance through the control of cultural experiences.

This dominance has been the culmination of an overwhelming control of a symbolic national narrative dictated and controlled by the conservative right. Practicalities of politics matter little here. The point being that key right-wing conservative tropes of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric have become the common ground of British politics and a sense of national narrative, particularly within England. This has been an ongoing process and theme through a conservative cultural dominance that arguably made the Conservative victory almost an inevitability.

Since the Conservatives came into power under David Cameron, and probably even before this, there has been an ongoing reinvention and reinforcement of an experience of the mythical majority. The booming cultural industries, dominated by themes of nostalgia and national experience, have shifted the cultural imagination and a national narrative.

For example, the last 10 years have witnessed a cultural shift on the small and big screen of historical dramas, for example: Downton Abbey, Poldark, Call the Midwife, Victoria, The Queen et al, in which a very specific ideological narrative has been spun (a pre-politically correct, multicultural or liberal landscape). Ideological perspectives and cultural narratives such as conservative traditionalism and a discursive dominance go hand-in-hand with political dominance. It becomes a naturalised and normalised manner in which to imagine the nation, it is also a cultural perspective that has monopolised what national imaginings might be in an era of increasingly defensive nationalism such as the reterritorialising of British cultural politics within the context of a process of disengagement from Europe and devolution.

Moreover, the past 10 years has also seen a shift in a process of memorialisation as a form of conservative nationalism. This can be seen in the ideologically situated use of symbolic commemoration characterised by historicised cultural pastiche and revitalised nationalism, for example through the WWI centenary commemorations and the ongoing politicisation of the symbolic use of the poppy.

Bringing this back to the recent election, the key point is that Johnson represents this symbolic narrative, much like Trump does in the US. Regardless of how untrustworthy, contradictory, offensive and inappropriate he may have proven himself to be, and regardless of scandal after scandal, Johnson (much like May) represents the symbolic social and political discursive conservative dominance within England of a national narrative and imagination. It was the Conservatives' dominance of this national imagination, not the individual figure, that won the election.

For huge swathes of England voting for the Conservatives is an act of willing self-harm, but this proves how utterly encompassing the conservative message and dominance has become. Regardless of how (in practical terms) a Labour government would benefit the majority of the population and conversely how detrimental a Conservative majority will be, ‘get Brexit done’ is the symbolic representation of a conservative national imagination rather than the rather hollow and meaningless message it might seem on the surface.

In terms of policy the Conservatives offered very little in the election but they didn’t need to. The Johnson victory is the culmination and consolidation of several years of  Conservative cultural and ideological dominance, particularly within England, of the national narrative.

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:02

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

Published in Cultural Commentary

With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.