Another week has slithered by in the wake of #Brexit, and the atmosphere is still rife with head scratching, spasms of anxiety and the crumbling of governing bodies. Frankly, I have no desire to get political, it’s not my place, but I do wish to write of a different sense of stability the British can always take pride in. The United Kingdom benefits subtly from a sort of appealing luster, the real mists of Avalon— soft power in magnitudes that can only be enviously craved by other countries.
Look at it this way, Mr. Putin on his chilly northeastern fronts would love to be able to brag that the Beatles were four lads from a rustic Russian hamlet. Shakespeare, Monty Python, Turner paintings, Pink Floyd, Four Weddings and a Funeral, James Bond, the Crown Jewels, Kate Moss’ cheekbones, Sherlock Holmes, Punch and Judy shows, Ziggy Stardust, Paddington Bear, the Spice Girls, Wolf Hall, Oliver Twist, the YBAs, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, Banksy, Mr. Darcy; a buffet of flavours for every palate, and only capable of being forged by the brainpower of one curious set of isles.
My paltry list reflects only a fraction of the cultural icons for which we happily doff our hats to the UK. It might not seem as though Mick Jagger’s ceaselessly shaking hips or some hormonal teenaged wizards could have that much sway in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s trade deals, military strength and corporate secrets that seem to keep the globe spinning. Yet there is incredible strength, positive strength, in soft power. Music, literature, film, theatre, television, art exhibitions and all their expressive counterparts help construct identities on levels both very intimate and very public; the voice of one becomes the voice of many when disseminated internationally and enjoyed on various platforms. Culture generates esteem and curiosity on the world stage. And like a polished Merchant Ivory film or heartstring-nagging Jane Austen novel, soft power can cast a hazy pink glow over the past, selling idealised pseudo-history to audiences who then begin to yearn for glimpses of the real deal.
Hence nostalgia and representation can be awfully profitable, economically and otherwise, considering the illustrious origins of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as we know them today. Tales of well-feasted tyrannical kings and troubled marriage beds, vicious rebellions, princes disappeared inside towers, a snowy Virgin Queen, colonial safaris, enchanted escapades at country estates, knights and dragons, a bomb-scorched East End, Iron Ladies and drug-stuffed rock stars are all easily objectified and gobbled up. Collector editions of the Bard’s tragedies will still be published hundreds of times, and Paul McCartney will never stop raking in loot on iTunes. Glastonbury will swarm with more sweaty free-spirited types, tartan skirts will still stay chic every autumn, all the usual guilty pleasure will be taken in Hugh Grant movies, the media will literally devour itself when Prince George eventually hits eligible bachelorhood. High Tea will remain a synonym for elegance, and hordes of tourists will continue to flock to palace gates to poke at the Bear Guards, to parade themselves conspicuously around Abbey Road and to purchase “Keep Calm and Carry On” travel mugs to solidify their admiration of the UK’s collective heritage.
To a country afflicted by an uncertain future, I say take heart in the past and the assured creative potential of tomorrow. Test existing boundaries of expression and cherish your roots. Imagine unknowns and look to your singular story as a kingdom and commonwealth for inspiration. As your ledger of household names and seminal achievements can already attest to, the Brits are much greater than the sum of their Sunday roasts and stiff upper lips. Keep calm, indeed. And carry on wielding the mighty forces of soft power in that pert, charming and subversively cool way of yours. Come what may, I promise the world will still adore you as it does Jude Law’s roguish, pearly grin, even after that great nanny debacle.
Source: Branding Britain: Culture, Heritage and Representation, a lecture by Doctor Nicola Mann