David Cameron’s face has been bulging from a folded old newspaper on my bedside table for the last week now, prodding the message “Your country needs you!” into my unconscious as I sleep.  It’s such an obvious reference for an old-boy of the old-guard to make that I’m justifying the dated subject-matter of this article on the grounds that I hardly felt it was worth commenting on at the time.  However, the problematic spores of the prime ministers’ martial undertone took root in my mind, reinforced by his reassurance that, “This is not a cry for help but a call for arms”.  I’d much rather it was the former. In our time, a call for arms should not inspire confidence, but make us question why all other, more enlightened methods have failed.

Nostalgia is a dangerous drug.  Wishing for the good old days means wishing for the return of all that they entailed; you can’t pick and mix history.  You may, watching Mad Men, wish that drinking and smoking and taking four hour lunch breaks from the office were still par for the course, but don’t kid yourself that life was better then. The pain of the civil rights struggle, the desperate sexual inequality, the encroaching war in Vietnam and teetering threat of nuclear annihilation: would you trade the progress that we’ve made for a few bourbons in the mornings? A British pop singer recently claimed in a magazine interview that her favourite historical period was the Fifties, because “women were ladies then”.  She meant, presumably, the immaculate hair and the full skirts and the graceful way they glided in and out of Cadillacs, as opposed to the part where they got a dishwasher and a slap on the bum for Christmas.  But that just proves the danger of letting the past be glazed over with too many of the superficial signs of the zeitgeist; taking a cultural moment out from its socio-ethical-political context damages our perception of why we needed to leave it behind.

Someone once told me about a greatly-admired teacher, who would tell them eagerly about walking down streets of horse-drawn carriages as a youngster – a time when cars were the preserve of so few to be almost non-existent. He’d pause, just long enough for the class to wistfully appraise their own traffic-clogged morning commutes, before leaning forward with the caveat, “Don’t let anyone tell you how great the past was. The past smelt of horse-shit”.

The spirit of Cameron’s WW1-echoing exhortation, with its decorous side-stepping of the horse-shit of approximately 37 million casualties, among which 44% of mobilised British soldiers were lost, a society which prohibited female suffrage, a country that still held colonial reins throughout the world and a patriotism that coerced young men to kill and die in the name of glory, feels to me extremely tasteless. No more, perhaps, than the houses which still confidently display the Mughal memorabilia looted by past generations; no more, indeed, than the halls of the British Museum.

Founded as an institution for anthropological and cultural edification, it was nonetheless filled by items pillaged from conquered palaces and razed temples.  Last weekend the first ever member of the Colombian Kogi tribe visited England, and amidst his sweetly wondering account in The Sunday Times of “the big clock near the Houses of Parliament” and his first beer, he wrote, “The British Museum was interesting. I looked at the South American collection there and saw some Colombian artefacts. What on earth are they doing in the British Museum? Then I saw they’d done it to the Egyptians, too! And the Greeks! Let me tell you something for nothing: if it had been in my nature to get angry, this would have been the moment I really hit the roof”.

These things are so familiar that at first the idea of it filling someone with indignation was surprising.  We praise our multi-cultural society as though it’s a spontaneous, serendipitous product, rather than the side-effect of an attempt to create a worldwide social club of Westerners and their indigenous under-classes. We feel as though Egyptian history and Greek philosophy and Colombian gold are our rightful heritages, just as we have now accepted doner kebabs and tikka masalas as great British traditions.

The kitsching of empire (as demonstrated by Emmanuel College’s choice of it as a theme in 2009, along with the tagline, “Party like it’s 1899”) seems to be becoming more prevalently acceptable.  From Libertines-esque military jackets to heirloom bayonets casually adorning student houses, the owners of such ‘retro’ items don’t seem to recognise the potential offensiveness of such symbols.  For someone whose parents remember their own city hung with signs proclaiming “No Chinese, or Dogs”, history has an edge to it which isn’t easily blunted by allegedly post-colonial irony.

When Cameron declares, “Your country needs you”, it rings with an insular nationalism which should have become outdated. Who are we fighting this time? What cause are we fighting for? I think it’s Britishness. What that means is amorphous and many headed, but underneath the pastel twin-suits and tweezed lawns and top-notch educations, let’s just remember what else has contributed to make Britain what it is – that’s the USA, Africa, China, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean just for starters. Is Cameron even talking to people like me, I wonder? If he wants to play the nostalgia card, he needs to remember what those bygone days entailed, or face reminding some of his citizens that they were once those against whom he might have been calling for arms.

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