What do you think of when someone says ‘Britishness’? Cups of tea, perhaps. The infinite varieties of rain. Cricket in the park on a sunny afternoon. Tikka masala. Saturday football. The Church of England. Embarassment. ‘Jerusalem’. London fried chicken.
No example of what one might consider a quintessentially British thing will ever speak to everybody’s experience of the UK. However, a particular isotope of ‘Britishness’ has emerged in pop culture in recent years. Almost a response to the Cool Britannia of the ’90s – when the British music and clubbing scene was at its height, lending the country some cultural cachet – this new breed embraces Britishness as uncool by its very nature.
Exemplified by the popular Twitter account Very British Problems (@SoVeryBritish) with its tweets about awkwardness, uncertainty and paralysing modern propriety, an image of the British as quiet and stilted yet fundamentally decent has shot to incidental visibility in the BBC’s hit series Sherlock.
In case you’ve been living in Antarctica or in a wifi-less hole in the ground for four years, Sherlock is a modern-day adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, created by BBC giant Stephen Moffat. Sherlock is located firmly in London, and is populated by recognisably British setpieces: black cabs, sandwich shops, tabloids, fancy wallpaper, ugly jumpers, London landmarks and Mrs. Hudson, font of endless cups of tea.
One piece of set dressing will be particularly recognisable to regular viewers: that Union Jack cushion. Fan website Sherlockology details it as a ‘machine-woven tapestry cushion with cotton twill back’. You can buy an identical item from John Lewis, right now.
Another example of Sherlock launching consumer items into sudden popularity is the story of his unmistakeable coat. Originally made by upmarket tailors Belstaff, the coat was out of production when season one aired. Due to the explosion of demand, Belstaff had to put the coat back on the market again (at a breathtaking £1,350 each).
Sherlock is an international smash-hit of a TV show. In the US, while not surpassing other BBC favourite Downton Abbey, the season three premiere pulled four million viewers – and that’s not counting the eager American viewers who pirated the show after its UK release but before the American premiere. In the UK, Sherlock‘s third season garnered almost 12 million viewers, making it the most watched BBC drama in over a decade. That’s a lot of people that the Sherlock ‘look’ is reaching.
If Sherlock‘s audience is restricted to fans of English drama, then there’s another British event in recent years that pulled astronomical crowds: the 2012 Olympics. Danny Boyle’s quixotic opening ceremony for the London Olympics attracted an estimated 900 million viewers worldwide. The closing ceremony was watched by a barely less impressive 750 million. The cultural saturation of ‘Olympics fever’ in the UK led to an invasion of Union Jack-patterned products (I still own my pair of official London 2012 sweatbands.)
And who could ignore the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ megalith? The poster that spawned the fad was a real one, distributed during WWII, and unearthed by shopkeepers Stuart and Mary Manley in 2000. While the original poster series was a flop when it debuted – viewed as patronising by the general public – it has shot to fame in modern times for precisely the sentiment that put off its original audience. Why do people love it? Because it crystallises the mythic British attitude of keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of turmoil. While unpacking that cliché is a whole ‘nother blog post, it remains true that the design is popular because of its particular Britishness.
It’s unquestionable that Brit-chic has enjoyed a fresh vogue in the twenty-teens. But is there something troubling about mass-market production and consumption of the UK’s image?
Large companies’ marketing strategies for consumer products is invariably apolitical. Rimmel London for instance, with its crown logo, isn’t advocating for royalism. It’s selling its products by attractively employing a collection of concepts about London, in order to 1) create a brand signature, and 2) create consumer demand for that particular conceptual amalgam in connexion with Rimmel products. Rimmel London makes people want the ‘London look’ – and the only way to get that look is by using Rimmel London cosmetics.
Advertising is everywhere, its messages pervading and shaping the way we see the world. When advertising associates Britishness with positive feeling, that is a message we cannot help but submit to. We are being sold a national identity.
If Britishness is being sold as a trend, it removes the concept of nationalism from the sphere of ideology – where it is open to critique and is one among many political perspectives – and presents it as a style – a subjective personal choice, judged upon a different, aesthetic axis.
Real nationalism, however, exists – and it has teeth. The UK Independence Party, or UKIP, won a 27.5% share of the vote at the elections for members of the European parliament last month, beating the other, more established parties, to the top of the polls. UKIP stands on a single policy platform: leaving the European Union. Its members and ex-members have a history of misogynist, homophobic, ableist, and xenophobic remarks. UKIP is affiliated with far-right parties in Europe and the UK itself, members of which also are prone to making outrageously white supremacist proclamations. (See this article by Alex Andreou in the New Statesman for all the gory details.)
I’m not by any means comparing liking the look of a Union Jack cushion on your sofa to being politically conservative – that would be ludicrous. I am, however, convinced that there is a danger that, when the media carries messages bearing all the trappings of nationalism, the general public consuming those messages will slide unconsciously toward a sympathy for nationalism. It’s almost product placement, but instead of television making you thirsty for Coca-Cola, it might be priming your subconscious to be more open to right-wing political argument.
Maybe if we were living in different times I would feel differently. If there weren’t already a trend towards conservativism and nationalism sweeping Europe, it’s probable that I’d look at a British style trend with a kinder eye. As it is, I can’t help but view the popularity of ‘Britishness’ with reactionary suspicion. Anyway, isn’t dislike for patriotism supposed to be another one of those British characteristics?
- Remixed Messages, by Rob Walker for the New York Times, focuses on the rise and rise of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
- Michael Gove given ‘British values’ by Twitter after announcing Trojan horse measures in the Independent describes how Twitter responded after the Education Secretary announced measures to instil British values in schoolchildren.
- Nationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. What’s the deal with nationalism anyway?