Cup-cakes and cutbacks: Being nostalgic about austerity

Cup-cakes have not yet received much attention from political science – but maybe they should. Nadya Ali, a PhD student in Politics at Reading, argues in this post that the cup-cake craze belongs to a wave of nostalgia for the spirit of post-war austerity – a wave that, for all its jollity, may serve a sinister political purpose.

The financial crisis, a double dip recession, deep cuts in public services and the rising cost of a university education are just some of the problems which have beset the British public. This is a Europe-wide problem: the Greeks are out in force, protesting against austerity measures and the Spanish and Portuguese march in their thousands against public-sector cuts, but where are the Brits? Most likely, they are sitting on the sofa with a nice cup of tea, accompanied by a digestive, (or a ginger nut, which is apparently the optimum dunking biscuit) watching “The Great British Bake Off”.

In the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, being British has never seemed so fun. Celebrating the Monarchy, bunting, cup-cakes and street parties are the order of the day. You might say this is just a case of escapism in times when life is difficult and some patriotic cheer is just what the doctor ordered. You might be half-right. You might also ask what, as a political scientist, has the cup-cake got to do with politics. That is also an excellent question which this blog post seeks to address.

Ever since the financial crash in 2007, the British public have been gently primed from various quarters on how to cope with “these difficult times”. The 2010 General Election was fought on how “deep” and “fast” the cuts would have to be. However, politicians were not the only ones lining up to sound the warning for forthcoming economic hardship. No, they have also come from chefs, fashion designers, and film directors. Consider for a moment, Jamie Oliver’s 2008, cookbook, “The Ministry of Food”, which he describes in the following terms:

Jamie’s Ministry of Food campaign is based on a British initiative from Second World War, when the government set up a national network of food advisors and cooking teachers to educate the public about food and nutrition so they would be able to feed themselves properly with the rations available.

Invoking the wartime spirit and its associated themes of rationing, eating carefully and using up all available ingredients reflects a simpler approach to food. The success of cooking shows like “The Great British Bake-off” also relies on a similar British spirit in which “retro recipes” are celebrated and union jack bunting adorns the idyllic country setting. Another BBC show, “Wartime Farm” looks at the way in which agricultural changes impacted on eating habits in the backdrop of a world war. In fact the love of retro television programmes has been further demonstrated by the success of “Downton Abbey” and the 1950s set drama, “The Midwife”, whose star Miranda Hart comments:

At that time, they really were celebrating life. I’m not advocating a war in order to encourage a sense of reality, but our lives are now so comfortable, so unphysical. There is so much within us that we don’t use these days. The physical and mental strength of those midwives, it was extraordinary.

This spirit of post-war Britain is also echoed in changes in fashion. Let’s reflect on the words of Vivienne Westwood when asked how the current economic climate had influenced her collection which showcased at London Fashion Week: “What I’m saying is buy less – choose well. Don’t just suck up stuff so everybody looks like clones.” She also added, that “the ‘war mentality’ had influenced her use of bright oranges, military camouflage greens and yellows”. Her collection was tellingly described as “vamped-up 1950s housewife”. The popularity of the 1950s style does not end there, the V&A is currently hosting an exhibition called, “Ballgowns: British Glamour since the 1950s”. (If you are not persuaded by the importance of fashion then ask yourself why the Duchess of Cambridge buys her clothes in high street shops such as Reiss and LK Bennet rather than the creations of more illustrious and expensive designers. In fact, she has even been known to where the same dress twice!)

How do these seemingly disparate examples of the war spirit connect with, and help us reflect on, life in an age of austerity? In fact, how is any of this to do with politics? From a practical perspective, one may argue that these are simply ways of coping with current economic difficulties. For instance, people will want their resources to go that bit further and making the most of what is in the cupboard is not a particular controversial position to take. Nor does it seem “political”. But, politics is so much more than the formalised structures of voting and representation. Politics is about ideas of how life should be lived according to the things a society takes to be good, true and just. It is also about how these ideas are contested and the way in which this contest changes over time. Therefore, invoking austerity post-war Britain in a bid to negotiate contemporary economic hardship is more than a coping mechanism. It is a deeply symbolic way of thinking about, and making the case for, austerity, and has shaped the way the British public have responded to it. The idea of a simple, post-war, romantic Britain forged in the aftermath of a devastating conflict in which everyone played their part to strengthen this victorious nation is exceptionally powerful. Think about the revival and success of the World War II, “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster which The Economist’s Bagehot says “taps directly into the country’s mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bombs fall”.

This idea of “Austerity Britain” is especially potent in light of the political debates surrounding what it means to be “British” in a multicultural context over the last decade. This is old Britain, simple Britain, where everyone knows their place. The Monarchy is an important part of this image of old Britain. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton have enabled the public to celebrate and take succour from this historic British institution. There has also been an acceptance, in the large part, of the idea that austerity is necessary, important and that it even has some redemptive healing quality. Barring the London riots in 2011, and the occasional public sector protests, it seems there is little resistance to this economic programme. Housing benefit, legal aid, social care, and university teaching budgets are just some of the areas in which there are have deep funding cuts. Yet, incongruously, Union Jacks adorn our homes, pubs and shops in celebration of a romantic past. This is about naturalising the need for austerity through de-politicisation. After all, how can we contest austerity when it ceases to look like politics and instead resembles a cup-cake?


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