The Great British Nostalgia Fest

By Julia Bennett

As the ninth season of Great British Bake Off (GBBO) reached its climax recently it is a good time to question the continuing prevalence of the title Great British something. This is used everywhere that just ‘British’ would do – not only across a number of BBC programmes (Great British Railway journeys, Great British Menu etc, etc) but also the recently completed (and truly epic) swim around the island of Great Britain (Ross Edgley’s Great British Swim), the BBC sponsored academic research The Great British Class Survey, and the government sponsored competition for the best British High Streets (the Great British High Street), amongst others. Great Britain, as the largest of the British Isles, is great in the sense of big, not wonderful, grand, significant or any of the other numerous synonyms for the different meanings of great. When someone at the production company came up with the Great British Bake Off as a programme title in 2010 they were picking up on the ‘austerity nostalgia’ signalled particularly by the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ wartime poster, as Owen Hatherley describes in his book The Ministry of Nostalgia.

What kind of British identity is the Great British theme actually promoting? In 2011, after the riots, and speeches on ‘broken Britain’, and in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron unveiled the widely criticised ‘GREAT Britain’ advertising campaign. This campaign used images of Britain which illustrate perfectly the negativedescription of an old-fashioned Britain as ‘a theme park world of royal pageantry, rolling green hills and the changing of the guard’ in the 1997 Demos report – the key inspiration for New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign. The Cool Britannia vibe of the turn of the century attempted to represent Britain as a young, innovative and forward-looking nation. By 2008, when the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster began to be mass produced, Britain was no longer cool; by 2010 it had instead become ‘Great’, and backward looking. The two competitive reality TV programmes GBBO and The Great British Sewing Bee do offer a kinder version of reality programming. Home baking and sewing are old fashioned pastimes, suggesting a supposedly gentler era when there was time for afternoon tea (also more recently re-popularised in hotels and cafés) and no ‘instant’ or ‘throw away’ fashion. But focusing on the re-creation of the past means that there is no room for an interest in a new kind of future. 

So what does a Great British identity offer? Take, for example, the Great British High Street (GBHS), which announced this year’s winner – Crickhowell, in Wales – on 15th November. The competition began in 2014 following Mary Portas’ review of high streetsfor the government. It encourages local centres, town centres and villages to work together as a community to bring people back to the high street. This is an admirable aim. It is based on the kind of local development the American urbanist Jane Jacobs felt was vital for a successful and vibrant urban space: offering a variety of services including shops, cafes, small businesses, doctors and dentists and creating a local economy that is busy through the day and into the evening. There is, however, nothing especially British about this – Jacobs was writing about New York. In celebrating café culture and other food outlets, as the GBHS finalists do, one could argue that this is distinctly un-British – or even European. But the idea that Britain is a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and that without them “a key part of our national character will be lost” persists.

Interestingly, the first example of the use of ‘Great British’ as a programme title that I can find is a 2004 Channel 4 documentary entitled The Great British Asian InvasionThe two hour long documentary looked at the different patterns of immigration to the UK from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and East Africa. The East African Asians who arrived in the UK in the 1970s were described in this programme as the shopkeepers, keeping the British corner shop alive. Families described how they worked 14 hour days, seven days a week in order to build a thriving business. In the programme, Kate Fox, author of Watching the Englishcredited the relaxing of the Sunday opening hours to this change in British culture, whereby we became used to being able to buy what we wanted, when we wanted. Some of the children and grandchildren of these pioneers in keeping local shopping centres viable and changing British shopping culture are now integral parts of our local and regional identities such as Leicester’s Golden Mile.

Looking at this year’s group of Great British High Street finalists though there are surprisingly few signs of this diverse Britain. Although previous winners have included more working-class and ethnically mixed towns such as Blackburn, with 70% of the population identifying as white, nine of the thirteen English places represented in this year’s shortlist are firmly located in ‘middle England’, with over 90% of the local populations being white. The remaining four places (Bristol, Hull, St Albans and Guildford) have more diverse populations but on the whole this is not reflected on the GBHS website. The pictures illustrating the streets show plenty of bunting, a smattering of mock tudor architecture and shopfronts apparently influenced by the same current of nostalgia that inspired Bake Off. Whilst little is said about ethnic diversity in the Successful Town Centres reports on the GBHS website, it is a concern of Wrigley and Lambiri’s report British High Streets: from Crisis to Recovery? The authors highlight the lack of research in this area and suggest that more diverse high streets may be economically beneficial (p.32). Unfortunately, too many of the high street finalists this year appear to be white-washed spaces attempting to overcome post-colonial melancholia, rather than representing a convivial high street, which celebrates its global influences. There is little evidence, for example, of the Indian cuisine created by Bangladeshi chefs who, as The Great British Asian Invasion shows, migrated to the UK in large numbers as a result of the civil war in Pakistan (Bangladesh then being East Pakistan). This war was part of the British colonial legacy to the Indian subcontinent. Neil Berry recently described in The Independent how Britain has still not fully come to terms with its colonialist past or accepted its ongoing debt to the myriad of global influences fashioning who, and what, Britain is in the 21st century.

I have argued here that the danger inherent in the use of ‘Great British’ is that it implies a harking back to an imaginary past when, supposedly, Britain was ‘Great’. High Streets, the centre of a local community, should be somewhere that we can all feel a sense of identity and belonging. Ideally the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government who run the GBHS competition, champion a twenty-first century high street as one of the sources of the hybridity of Britain which was celebrated previously (admittedly from a London-centric perspective) by Cool Britannia. With austerity officially over, perhaps we can move on from the ‘austerity nostalgia’ implied in these uses of Great British. Then we can focus on the future rather than an (in)glorious past.

Julia Bennett researches and writes about places, community and local and national belonging. She is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Chester and tweets at @drjuliabennett.

Originally posted 17th December 2018

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