The #referendum: A choice between taking our country back and taking it forwards?

“Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in - it's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” 

The words are from Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, which tells the story of aspiring novelist Gil Pender. Drunkenly stumbling through the streets of Paris one night, he is transported back to the 1920s, a period he idolises. He meets his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Intoxicated by this ‘golden age’, he returns night after night. 


Many Leave campaigners are guilty of a similar obsession. They eulogise Britain’s pre-EU history, insisting that Britain was best when it stood alone. Let’s go back to being that Great Britain, they urge. Others have shown a similar penchant for nostalgia, drawing parallels between Britain’s so-called “finest hour” when the nation stood alone against Nazi Germany and our trip to the ballot box this week. 

“This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe,” Boris Johnson said in May. Many others are suffering a severe attack of ‘golden age thinking.’ ‘Take our country back!’ they howl. The thing is, they want to take it back to a time that never was. Faced with a painful present, we gaze longingly at the past with rose-tinted specs. Nostalgia is usually benign and often humorous. But when it becomes the basis for a campaign that seeks to change the course of history, it is neither. 


The Britain some pine for, the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, was wracked with disunity, racial and class conflict, and economic and political decline. Mass immigration from the empire was arousing controversy. Anti-immigration MPs spoke of “threats” and “invasions” and brought xenophobic rhetoric into the mainstream, offering a veil of respectability for racist pride in white Britain. Britain was great before, they cried. Get back to whiteness, and greatness would return. 

Confronted with the painful present, Britons of the 50s and 60s flocked to cinemas to relive their “finest hour” on the silver screen – reassuring themselves that this was when Britain was best. But this myth of a unifying ‘peoples’ war’ that continues to inform our understanding of ourselves was really the result of a wartime propaganda campaign, launched in an attempt to unify a nation beset by deep class and regional divisions. 


Looking further back to the 1890s, Londoners grumbled that Eastern European settlers were taking jobs and houses, claims proven to be unfounded. But the 1905 Aliens Act was passed anyway. Let’s take our country back, the act implied, back to that golden time before these migrants came. The present is always painful to a degree. What matters is how we respond. The knee-jerk reaction of many throughout history has been to try to turn back the clock. 

As newcomers, migrants and refugees are easy scapegoats for the painful nature of the present. Turning back the clock quickly comes to mean turning people away. But such thinking is based on the flawed belief that there was a time when our nation had a common culture that has now fragmented. Britain has always been diverse and has often found its identity in boldly acknowledging and embracing it. 

Judith Vonberg is a PhD candidate and freelance journalist. She is studying the mutual perceptions of Britons and Germans just after the Second World War. As a journalist she writes about migration, Anglo-German relations and European culture. Her work has been published by the New Statesman, the Guardian and Buzzfeed, among others. She has appeared on BBC TV World News and BBC Radio Scotland discussing the refugee crisis. Visit her website and find her on twitter @JudithVonberg.

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