Queen Elizabeth has seen many changes in British society during her 70 years on the throne. The territory where she reigns has shrunk. The influence of his United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was diminished.
Now, as it celebrates its Platinum Jubilee, Her Majesty’s Government are taking steps to restore Britain to its self-proclaimed greatness after having to conform to international standards.
Or at least to make older Britons dream of those days when they sip a pint of beer or buy a pound of flour.
Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson is keen for voters to talk about the glory of a mid-20th century past, rather than the ongoing fallout from the “party portal“scandal.
One historian calls it “the wars of nostalgia”.
To coincide with the Jubilee, which will be celebrated over the next four-day long weekend in the UK, the UK government is bringing back the crown stamp on pint glasses. It is a four-century-old tradition that has been phased out with the implementation of the European Measuring Instruments Directive of 2004.
Johnson is also set to allow shop owners to once again sell products by the pound, instead of using kilograms and grams, which the UK started to adopt in the 1960s but has accelerated. following decade when the country accepted deeper European integration.
Both steps are presented as advantages of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. And they fit into a British conservative model that draws on England’s past to define British identity.
“There’s a hint of dishonesty about it… but that’s not the point,” said Anand Menon, professor of politics at King’s College London. “This is the message” that Johnson sends.
It’s unclear whether “the whole ‘Partygate’ thing has eroded the prime minister’s reputation to such an extent that he simply won’t benefit from it,” Menon said.
EU rules state that a pint glass in a pub must be stamped with the letters ‘CE’ for ‘European Conformity’ (‘European Conformity’ in French). The letters confirm that the glass holds exactly one pint.
- LOOK – CBC News Special: The Queen’s Jubilee, Trooping the Colour, June 2, 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem
From 1699, during the reign of King William III, pint glasses in England featured a crown instead. From Friday, corona will start appearing again in drinks in British pubs.
While the move may go unnoticed by many beer drinkers, the government has used particularly colorful language to stress its importance.
It is “a very fitting symbol of how the Queen’s kingdom is returned to its people now that it has been freed from the bureaucratic overlord of Brussels”, said Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, to the pro-Tory tabloid, the Daily Mail.
The government is also launching a consultation on Friday on how to relaunch the imperial system of measuring pounds and ounces.
“EU regulations require certain products to be sold in the metric system, but the Prime Minister has made it clear he wants to consult on this,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters this week.
- LOOK – CBC News Special: The Queen’s Jubilee, A Service of Thanksgiving, June 3, 5:30-9 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem.
This is where the “dishonesty” mentioned by Anand comes in.
EU rules haven’t stopped British pub owners from serving beer in crown-adorned glasses. Brussels has also not stopped UK retailers from providing shoppers with additional product information in pounds and ounces. But the European measures had to be displayed in the majority. As an EU member state, Britain had to comply, even when it came to measuring products by the kilogram.
Labor MP Angela Eagle called Johnson’s latest move is a “pathetic” attempt to “weaponize nostalgia” for political gain.
Similarly, renowned Cambridge University classics Professor Mary Beard has said that Britons are experiencing “nostalgia wars”.
“I’m about to be retired and I’m anxious about it because I think I’m the vote that’s being called here,” Beard said in a BBC interview.
“I want to stand up and say, ‘We old folks don’t all want to go back to the imperial [measures].’”
Yet, as the streets of London are draped in Union Jack flags to honor the Queen, linking this national moment to Brexit is “a political no-brainer”, Menon said.
Brexit, after all, was an exercise in nostalgia in itself. The slogan that helped kick Britain out of the international alliance promoted the idea of taking the country “back” in time.
At the crossroads of Brexit and history
Ahead of Britain’s referendum on EU membership in 2016, Johnson and other Brexit supporters promised that leaving the bloc would allow the UK to “take back control” of all its domestic and foreign affairs since Brussels.
Like former US President Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again”, Britain’s Leave campaign was based on the premise that Britons were better off before globalization, before the rise in immigration and before the country joined post-war multinational organizations.
Appealing to the historic pride of the British is also complicated by a renewed scrutiny of colonialism.
“It may seem that Britain is a nation obsessed with history, longing for the stability and certainty of a vanished golden age,” writes historian Hannah Rose Woods in the introduction to her new book, Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain.
British politicians and other figures have pondered the past for more than 500 years, Woods writes. And the explanation, she says, is simple.
“Nostalgia offers us protection against our anxieties: the chance to escape our worries about what the future holds for us.”
Indeed, speaking to Tory supporters in 2017, Rees-Mogg likened Brexit to victories in England’s distant history. “It’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crécy. We win all those things,” he said.
When Johnson led the Leave campaign, he had not yet lived at 10 Downing Street. Its aura among Eurosceptic conservatives had not yet been tarnished by “Partygate”.
Months into this saga, Johnson still faces new calls to step down following the alcohol-fueled rallies held at his official residence and nearby government offices during the COVID-19 shutdowns. A report by senior civil servant Sue Gray, published in its entirety last week illustrated how often and brazenly UK lawmakers have broken pandemic rules.
Menon, the politics professor, suspects Johnson’s latest proposals won’t “save his grades.”
“The government wanted to get [Sue Gray’s report] get out, move on…and spend this week focusing on the Jubilee. But that’s not what’s happening.
“I think the person who comes out of this very popular, at the end of this week, will be the queen.”
Thomas Daigle reported extensively on the Royals and Brexit while based at CBC’s London bureau from 2016 to 2019. He is back in the UK to cover the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.