An appeal to a glorious past has been a prominent feature of European politics in recent years. While there are common elements to the nostalgic discourses seen across European politics, nostalgic narratives are clearly heavily mediated and contextualised by a nation’s esoteric cultural and historical background. This report sets out the findings of our qualitative and quantitative research into nostalgia in contemporary Great Britain, France and Germany – three leading European nations in which the past feels ever-present.

Methodologically, we gather in this report a large suite of academic, quantitative and qualitative research, including original surveys. In particular, we present the insights gained from an extensive suite of citizen focus groups conducted in cities and towns throughout England, France and Germany, which together provide a comprehensive illustration of the many contributing factors behind commonly held anxieties about the present, and apprehension towards the future. We contextualise these through researching the employment of nostalgia as a rhetorical device in each country’s contemporary political cultures, particularly focusing on recent political campaigns, and through interviews on this subject with leading political figures, campaigners and commentators.

Reflecting on what this research reveals regarding the role of nostalgia as a cultural and political force, a number of conclusions can be drawn.

  • Britain, France and Germany are experiencing profound level of social, economic and cultural transformation, and the breadth and depth of this change has been alienating for many citizens to the extent that many feel unwilling or even incapable of looking to the future.
  • Each country holds a varied and complex history of nostalgic narratives, some of which have gained renewed salience in a period in which citizens no longer accept a doctrine of progress.
  • These narratives are being skilfully harnessed by insurgent politicians of varied ideological inclinations to galvanise a force of protest against the status quo, rejecting a vision for the future that positions citizens as passive in the process of change.
  • Those who benefit from citizens’ anxieties about change are those peddling the promise of ‘control’, not just over immigration, or laws, or even whether the national flag is displayed with gusto, but over time itself. Time is presented as a wild and unruly force, which can be secured, regained, and tamed.
  • The cost of mainstream politicians failing to respond to these developments may well be our societies becoming more exclusionary and less communal, underpinned by a more desperate, dangerous form of social competition – in short, the imperilling of our liberal democracies.

The report can be downloaded in full here.

The executive summary, summarising the research findings, can be downloaded here.

For more information, please contact the author, Sophie Gaston: @sophgaston.