Major Demos research project finds economic insecurities, cultural dislocation & fears of the future compelling citizens to turn to the past

A major Demos research project into nostalgia as a political force finds economic precariousness, and discomfort with cultural and demographic change, are compelling citizens to look to the past for comfort. Citizens’ propensity for nostalgia is further encouraged by widespread fears about the future ahead of the next technological revolution.

The report features insights from two large suites of focus groups conducted by Demos in cities and towns across England, capturing how citizens’ personal experiencing in living through social and economic upheaval have shaped their attitudes towards life in Britain.

At Home in One’s Past shows that many Britons feel the country is on the wrong path, that vital social values and cultural traditions are threatened, and that the political and economic settlement is ‘broken’ in some fundamental way. These trends have compelled citizens to turn away from the ‘doctrine of progress’ and encouraged them to find comfort in political campaigns promoting the safety of the past.

The focus groups reveal two broad groups of citizens receptive to nostalgic messages:

• those who have lived through the material deterioration or demographic dislocation of their communities, due to economic transformation (ie. de-industrialised North, white working-class in London); and
• those who feel acutely exposed to the cumulative ‘stresses’ of social and cultural change – particularly incensed by cultural pluralism, seen to be favoured over British values and traditions, and political correctness, regarded as taxing and repressive.

Especially when compared to their counterparts in other European countries, the proportion of British citizens who genuinely wished to return to a bygone era was relatively small, although significant for its strength of feeling. Considerably larger in size were those who meticulously outlined the many ways in which Britain had declined during their lifetimes, but were ultimately unwilling to trade the advantages of contemporary life. This group were weary and hostile to the prospect of enduring further change, particularly that which is seen to benefit minorities at the expense of ‘the many’.

In a new nationally representative survey conducted with Sky Data, the Demos finds a country deeply divided between age, geography, gender, education, party affiliation, socio-economic status and voting behaviour in the European Referendum. Only three issues appear to truly unite the nation:

• the belief that the country is in a state of decline and that further change lies on the horizon
• feeling that immigration has negatively impacted British society, and
• believing nation’s cultures and traditions are not being sufficiently defended and promoted.

Key findings from the survey include:
• 63% of British citizens believe life was better when they were growing up, compared to 21% who believe that life is better now.
• 55% of citizens believe that job opportunities were more accessible and plentiful in the past, 71% believe their communities have been eroded over the course of their lifetimes, and 63% believe that Britain’s status on the world stage has declined.
• 82% of Britons anticipate a “fair” or “great” level of change lies on the horizon. 31% of citizens believe the change that lies ahead will benefit them, and 30% believe they will lose out.
• More than a third of adults (34%) believe the Government should favour protecting communities over promoting economic growth.
• 47% of Britons (and 76% of Leave voters) feel that protecting British values should be favoured over multiculturalism, compared to 36% of citizens who feel ‘welcoming different cultures’ is more important.
• 55% of Britons do not believe the Government is doing enough to promote traditional British values. 66% of Conservative voters don’t believe their Party is doing enough, nor do 80% of Leave voters.
• 43% of Britons believe immigration has been positive for Britain, and 44% believe it has been a negative development.
• 71% of Britons believe that immigration has made the communities where migrants have settled more divided, reaching 78% in areas that report having experienced large-scale migration in recent years.

The report considers the media and political environment that helps to shape such fertile conditions for nostalgia, exploring the different narratives promoted by UKIP, the Labour Party and the Conservatives, which have invoked a glorious past. A content analysis conducted on newspaper coverage during the EU Referendum campaign and its immediate aftermath also identified around 3,300 articles employing nostalgic language, revealed to be split between both the Leave and Remain sides, who both sought to harness history for their own ends.

The newspapers found to have the greatest proportion of nostalgic content were The Telegraph and the Express, and The Guardian, although many of the articles in this newspaper were mocking, not endorsing, nostalgic rhetoric. The content analysis also captures how the Leave campaign’s simplistic but effective messaging appears considerably more cohesive and consistent compared to the Remain campaign, whose narrative becomes diluted amongst its illustrious but varied voices.
In new interviews conducted with senior figures from the Leave and Remain campaigns, the report also reveals the choices they faced in the development of their messaging, and the ongoing disputes about the campaigns’ legacies – with both sides keen to be seen as having been focused on the future. In the polling conducted for the project with Sky Data, we find that:

• 40% of citizens overall felt the Leave campaign’s rhetoric was focused on restoration and the past, and 26% felt it emphasised the future.
• 36% of Britons felt the Remain campaign was future-oriented, and 11% restorative, while a considerable proportion of citizens (41%) either felt it was ‘neither’ or selected ‘don’t know’.
• 50% of Leave voters felt the campaign they supported was future-focused, and 58% of Remain voters believe the campaign they supported looked to the future.

The report concludes that despite Britain’s political culture being steeped in nostalgia, and the immense level of dissatisfaction a large number of citizens feel with the state of the country, the term ‘nostalgia’ remains a taboo, with few willing to label themselves, or their political campaigns, in this light. It finds that ‘optimism’ and ‘openness’ are considered essential parts of the British character, and this image of the nation has endured, thus far, despite the forces of dissatisfaction sweeping the country.

Nonetheless, the report cautions that the widespread nature of the resistance to further change, especially among older Britons, and the chronic level of pessimism about the nation’s trajectory, present critical challenges to effective governance – particularly with a new wave of transformative economic change on the horizon. Its author, Sophie Gaston, urges politicians to courageously confront the forces encouraging citizens to feel economically, culturally and socially insecure, and to more proactively engage with the transformations that lie ahead.

The project also involved extensive focus groups and interviews across France and Germany, with citizens found to share many similar critiques of social and economic change, and anxieties about the future, with the French especially conscious of ‘the nation’ in decline, and Germany still tremendously economically, politically, and ideologically divided between the East and the West.

Commenting on the findings, the report’s author Sophie Gaston, Deputy Director at Demos, said:
“It is evident that there is a widespread level of dissatisfaction with many aspects of Britain’s economic and social settlement, and this is being effectively harnessed by politicians across the political spectrum, offering safety in the simple familiarity of the past. And yet, the fact that the term ‘nostalgia’ itself remains a taboo suggests that we continue to defiantly see ourselves as an optimistic people. There is nothing to be gained in denigrating a longing for the past, when we consider how much it reveals about people’s attitudes to the present, and fears of the future. Nonetheless, there is a huge cost to governance when such a large proportion of citizens become resistant to change, when our communities become so divided and the sense of social competition so acute. It is the responsibility of politicians to listen to and address these concerns, and draw a convincing, empowering narrative to guide citizens through the change that lies ahead.”

Caitlin Lambert, Press Officer, Demos.
[email protected]
0207 367 4200 |

A full summary of the UK polling, an executive summary, and advance copies of the full report (including the German and French comparative case studies) are available on request.

Survey fieldwork conducted by Sky Data on behalf of Demos. Nationally representative sample of 1,056 Sky customers, weighted to match the profile of the population. Respondents interviewed online 30 April – 8 May 2017.