Nostalgic Pessimism

I was recently given a copy of Gavin Esler’s book “How Britain Ends” and have thoroughly enjoyed having another perspective on the politics of these Islands.

A large part of his book is devoted to exploring the rise and nature of English Nationalism. Its roots, attitudes and contrasts with the nationalisms of Scotland, Wales and Ireland (north and to a degree South). 

He traces what is referred to as “nostalgic pessimism” as a root of English resentment at the loss of some Golden Age through the centuries.  In the words attributed to John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard 11 the most widely known part being the opening lines.

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

Less well known is the closing lines;

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!”

Two things stand out about this piece of essential English patriotism, one is that, as the name suggests, John was in fact an immigrant. Secondly, he died in 1399! (see the link below)  

Yet Shakespeare writing in 1592 – 94 uses exactly the same themes 200 years on as England began to face the succession crisis as Elizabeth 1 (the virgin queen) was going to leave no successor.  What I find fascinating is that John’s England had only been a recognisable unit for perhaps a couple of centuries yet already the nostalgia for some past Golden Age was in full flow. 

This is a recurring theme which runs through English politics and culture to this day and is perhaps at the root of so many of the problems, the inability to let the past be past, to learn from it rather than try to recreate it. This nostalgia for some undefined but always golden age was just as prevalent in the 2016 Brexit campaign as it is in the resulting shambles. This inability to face up to the loss of an Empire and find a positive role in the 21st century lies at the heart of the ugly face of English Nationalism which drives the Labour, Liberal Democrat as well as Tory Parties further and further to the right. They want to go back to some unknown time when everything was better but don’t know how, when or why.

England, which has been one of the great powerhouses of literature, culture, social and industrial development has become scared of its own shadow.   Driven by a media which is incapable of sensible, rational analysis.  

This longing for some past era is sadly coupled with, perhaps even the cause of, a pessimism which sees the future as a threat rather than a promise. Where the nationalisms of the Celtic countries look at how we can improve and advance, English nationalism sees threats and shadows. Sadly it seems to be rooted in a blood and soil culture xenophobia which is perhaps typified best by the incessant worrying about immigration and colour. Fearmongering by a right wing media seemingly bent on creating division which can be exploited by unscrupulous owners and their tame politicians. 

England’s media rarely sees a positive, tending instead to look for someone or something which is always trying to do them down. Mix it with the unfailing arrogance of the current crop of “leaders” and you have the insanity of “Global Britain” which “holds all the cards” and will “have its cake and eat it” coming face to face with ministers who can’t make the time to read their brief because they are busy on Christmas stalls and whine when their opposite numbers have not only read but understood the treaties. As the old cliché goes “Failing to prepare is the same as preparing to fail”.  

The “England, that was wont to conquer others” links directly to today’s “God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” of Land of Hope and Glory. England it seems cannot and will not be satisfied.

 (This England – John of Gaunt’s Famous Speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II – Facts and Stories (