Back to the 1970s? Or the 1930s? Welcome the weaponisation of British history

Labour is struggling to find a coherent narrative

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Never mind the NHS - they're weaponising our national history. Former M&S chief Stuart Rose today branded Ed Miliband a "1970s throwback". "Business-bashing" Labour, he said, will lead to "shuttered shop fronts, empty high streets and lengthening dole queues".

Instantly, we are transported back to the decade in all its ugliness: the three-day week, rubbish piling up in the streets, the dead lying unburied. A dank place: all brown, orange, beige and, god forbid, mass-produced. It’s Gary Glitter, Dave Lee Travis and Jimmy Savile.

Just last month, Labour tried to turn the guns of history on their adversaries. Unfortunately for them, the decade they picked to tar the Conservatives with doesn't come with such indelible negative connotations. "The Tories", cried a campaign poster, "want to cut spending on public service back to the level of the 1930s".

While it meant to evoke the thirties of The Road to Wigan Pier - hunger, poverty, and a threadbare welfare net – the decade is, as a time beyond living memory, also filed in the public conscience under "olden days". A catch-all, with little bearing on historical reality, the "olden days" can be writ large, by whoever so chooses, with coded ideas of race, class, gender and who belongs. 

It is the England of Stanley Baldwin: “the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill”.


It is John Major’s England of “warm beer and long shadows on the cricket ground”. It is soft and comforting, like an episode of Downton, and could be located any time between the Elizabethan period and the 1960s.

Back in the realm of real historical record, the interwar years were also when one of the cornerstones of a Tory utopia was laid. Slums were cleared and replaced by suburbs. The government erected "homes fit for heroes". And along with it, constructed the idea of "the Englishman and his castle".

Behind this neat trope lies the belief that the state's role is to protect its citizens, to tax them as little as possible and otherwise not to infringe on their freedoms.

By leaving the man on the Clapham omnibus with enough of his wage packet to take care of himself, his house, the car in his drive - his corner of England - the state pulls back, and allows an idyllic nation to prosper. 

In her attack on Miliband over Mansion Tax, Myleene Klass showed this idea is alive and well: a man’s right to his keep is sacrosanct.

Labour, meanwhile, is currently struggling with any kind of coherent story, let alone a utopia. It looks like its too late for Miliband, but here’s a message, perhaps, for whoever succeeds him: don’t be afraid of the 1960s. It’s a divisive decade, out of favour.

But from it Labour could mine a whole raft of socially progressive achievements – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of hanging, divorce law reform – that sell their story. These deeds are not all Labour’s doing, of course. But that's the beauty of rifling through the treasure chest of national history. Do it right and you can make of it what you will.