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Precedent Thinking in 2020s Britain

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Lauren Pikó / October 16, 2021
To think about the relationship between past and present in terms of 'precedent' can seem odd—but this structure of feeling has become central to how events are understood and represented in contemporary Britain. 6261 words / 25 min read

Photo: The Post Office Tower during construction


In March 2020, the BT Tower in central London was broadcasting a new message about new times. While the exact date of COVID-19’s initial spread to Britain is still not clear, by 29 January the first two confirmed cases in Britain had been diagnosed. By early March, the numbers of infections had begun to surge upward. By the week commencing Monday 16 March, the rate of spread was escalating so quickly that each day brought new advice; on working from home “for those who can”, followed by shutdowns of schools, then gyms, restaurants, and pubs. It was over this situation that on Friday 20 March, the BT Tower’s LED panels were programmed with the message “Stay safe in these unprecedented times.” This alternated with the words “Thank you to everyone working to keep us safe”.”

Opened in 1964 as part of the Wilson Government’s commitment to technological revitalisation, the BT Tower looms over much of the inner London skyline. This prominence has led to it attracting other functions beyond its primary purpose of issuing broadcasting signals; in 2009, it was installed with an “information band” of programmable LED screens. Alongside the ever-present BT logo, the messages displayed on these screens are often anodyne: from counting down the days to the 2012 Olympics, to announcing royal births, the content of these messages is not necessarily intended to be original, so much as reflect some wider pattern of pre-existing interest. The tacit motivation for the BT Tower messages appears to be a kind of paternalistic benevolence, where the tower’s messages project an imagined unity and shared experience, designed to construct an idea of a shared collective interest.

This was certainly the case in March 2020. When the BT Tower broadcast the signal that these were “unprecedented times”, they were not formulating an original way to describe the events taking place in Britain over the course of that week. The language of “unprecedented” had already been in play throughout March, and not only in Britain, to describe the effect of COVID-19’s spread throughout the world, and to describe the kinds of tools governments were using to respond to this spread. The idea of ‘unprecedented times’, or extraordinary times, was already an entrenched shorthand for the combined impact of COVID-19, swiftly adopted economic measures, border closures, and the drastic feelings of dislocation and interruption which accompanied the rate of change. In Britain, Conservative Party figures regularly reached for the word as they developed stimulus packages and government subsidies for wider ranges of social groups outside of their more usual pattern of corporate subsidies. Unprecedented times, in this thinking, required unprecedented measures, including underwriting a larger portion of the free market, and even, in some cases, suspending or reducing some of the more punitive aspects of government policy which in “precedented times” might be considered unthinkable, such as extending visa stays for foreign nationals.

The early insistence that these times are “unprecedented” was followed by significant criticism of how historically selective this view of precedent was in different contexts. In the United States of America, Australia and other settler colonial nations, this included the many experiences of First Nations peoples facing weaponised epidemics and isolation as part of colonisation. To call on such experiences as precedent in Britain, however, would mean invoking the historical authority of First Nations peoples in resisting and surviving the onslaught of British colonisation, and would mean remembering that British history involves the history of Britain’s actions outside its current borders. Potential precedents which carried confronting associations, and which have been more frequently raised in British press, include the 1918-19 and 1957 influenza pandemics. By holding these up as potential models of public health, economic and political responses to a pandemic, the goal is to be able to visualise a parallel script which the future might follow, where the past functions as a bank of lessons with teachings ready for application.

In a legal context, using precedent ensures consistency in the application of laws. Informally, the search for historical precedents for crises seems less focused on ensuring fairness, but more so, making the present legible along the lines of familiar stories. The very perception that there need to be precedents to be applied to such wide-ranging situations beyond a court of law, and that it is the role of the past to provide these, however, is in need of more critical consideration, especially in the context of 2020s Britain.

Looking for precedent is a very particular and partial way of viewing history and its purpose, where some events are more easily elevated to the level of potential lessons than others. It also can supplant, or at least displace, a search for what is specific about the current situation, in the search for parallels or for historical scripts whose plots align with the present situation. This can arise from the over-insistence on no precedent existing, therefore cutting the present off from the causal chain which led to it. Even when a suitable precedent has been found, reading the present in parallel with an already resolved narrative from another time risks acting as a filter, where the urge to fit the present into the trajectory of the established plotline can drive distortion, oversimplification, and exclusion of important differences.

Looking for precedent is a very particular way of viewing history, where some events are more easily elevated than others. It also can supplant, or at least displace, a search for what is specific about the current situation

This is especially the case given the function of ideas of precedent in recent British politics. While the exclusionary nationalism of Brexit-era politics shares features with other right-wing regimes around the world, Britain is more distinctive in the way that a particular narrowly defined ideal of “tradition” has led to such extreme policy goals, being pursued so relentlessly, and yet without a clear and specific sense of the economic and political outcomes which must be obtained. The single-minded preoccupation with Brexit indicates that the idea of precedent was already running the show politically in January 2020, the engineered crises of under-response to the COVID-19 crisis and over-response to the manufactured constitutional crisis of Brexit seem poised to converge. It is therefore especially important to consider how “precedent thinking” shapes our relationship to time, and affects how we see the present and the future as well as the past. I suggest that by considering how precedent thinking has come to shape British politics, it becomes possible to look outside of the narrowness of that structure of feeling, and instead, perhaps, to try to imagine another.

Raymond Williams used the term “structure of feeling” to describe “affective elements of consciousness and relationships,” or the fluid, shared cultural tendencies which organise our making sense of the world.1 A structure of feeling in Williams’ view is necessarily “difficult” to define, but can be seen as shared, historically specific, patterns of interpretation and sense-making, which incorporate not only ideologies and symbolism, but an emotional “worldview”. It is a language of understanding and expressing how parts of the world relate to each other, somewhat less rigidly structured than an ideology, but more as a shared cultural perspective, built out of repeated statements which prioritise some interpretations over others. I’d like to suggest here that thinking about the past and present through the relationship of precedents reflects a distinctive attitude to time, infusing these patterns of interpretation with emotional power and resonance, which can be productively engaged with as a structure of feeling, specifically because of how instinctively and easily it has been drawn upon, and how powerful a structure this has come to be in recent British history.

Thinking about past & present through the relationship of precedents reflects a distinctive attitude to time, infusing these patterns of interpretation with emotional resonance, which can be engaged with as a structure of feeling.

The structural function of precedent thinking can be seen most clearly in Brexiteer narratives of the past, and how they interact with other political norms regarding Britain’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Britain at a time where its elite political culture was most obsessively focused on achieving goals imagined to restore one particular precedent, and heal one breach of continuity in the recent past. This attitude can be seen in the overt rhetoric of the Brexit referendum, with the focus on “taking back control” and regaining lost “independence”. The decision to enter the European Union was framed as a mistake which could be undone, and an error which could be corrected. Precedent thinking reveals itself in contemporary British culture through the frenetic efforts to restore precedents seen to be in breach, and the way in which restoring and correcting that divergence has been pursued at such immense political, economic and human cost.

To think critically about the present moment, it is necessary to think back to this moment and unpack how its view of history became normalised in elite political culture. To some with a long memory, this language of undoing errors of the past might sound familiar: just like the frontiers of the state, whose expansion could be “rolled back”, this narrative closely resembles the view of British history which was central to Thatcher-era Conservative policy. As Stuart Hall wrote in 1979, even before the election, Margaret Thatcher had already “won”, by successfully transforming Britain’s political language. What this meant in practice, however, was that she had successfully developed a neat historical explanation for how Britain had gotten to the particular point it was at, and presented the Conservative Party as the only possible “solution” to the crises of the present.

This approach seized on established tendencies in late 1960s and early 1970s political analysis, which escalated throughout the 1970s: this was the perception that Britain as a nation was “in decline”, and that this decline could be seen through the economic instability of the 1970s. Rather than viewing the recessions and inflation of the 1970s as patterns which were shared by the global economy, magnified by mismanagement at a national level, viewing Britain as a “declining” nation in this way took a wider view, interpreting the recent past as a journey away from its “greatness” overall. This journey coincided with the post-1945 governments’ commitment to the construction of the welfare state, building of new towns, and embracing a planned economic future. It also coincided with increased American global political influence; decolonisation and the shrinking of the British Empire; and, crucially, with increasing migration to Britain from former colonies, especially from the Caribbean nations and South Asia.

In this culturally conservative structure of feeling, change itself was seen as betrayal, an affront to the absolute ideal of Britain as “great”. This emotional language of crisis, and its political functioning through “mapping together” experiences of change into a single national narrative, was identified during the 1970s itself in the CCCS study Policing the Crisis.2 Paul Gilroy has explored this pattern in postwar British culture, describing the grafting together of different historical symbols into a single “moral universe” as a political neurosis of “postcolonial melancholia”. Focusing on how the Second World War had come to be understood as the dominant touchstone for national identity and political memory, Gilroy argued that this functioned as a means of displacing and repressing grief at the “loss” of Britain’s imperial power, and a refusal to face its realities.3 This foundational unresolved grief informed attitudes to change more broadly, including:

The apprehension of successive political and economic crises, with the gradual breakup of the United Kingdom, with the arrival of substantial numbers of postcolonial citizen-migrants, and with the shock and anxiety that followed from a loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture.

The political culture of the 1970s had been suffused with this pattern of interpreting a wide range of social and political changes as both betrayals of an imagined prestigious history, and where current conflicts and economic crises were presented as evidence of that downward spiral.4 Under Thatcher, the Conservative party was able to seize on this existing cultural pattern, and link the perceived “failures” of the recent past to the failure of “socialist” political experimentation, which the Conservatives were solely able to correct. This story explained how Britain got to where it was, and it presented the action which needed to be taken as part of restoring old traditions.5 By framing these changes as ones which had led Britain away from itself, Thatcher as Conservative Party leader was able to cast herself and her Party as being the ones able to restore old lost continuities as part of the path of progress; these changes were to be consistent with and uphold traditions, in this view. The Labour Party, whose policies for the last quarter century had been explicitly focused on building a different future, was therefore cast as archaic, a kind of outdated or superseded vision of the past. This paradoxical story explained the present by elevating some precedents and rejecting others, while presenting the Conservative Party in the position of defending and restoring valued traditions.

This explanatory framework allowed for genuinely radical breaks with the past to take place during the 1980s, while being championed as consistent with existing traditions. The transformation of London’s Docklands into a free enterprise centre, for example, or the abolition of the Greater London Council, or the closing of coal mines, involved destroying historic landscapes and institutions to clear space for new economic orders. This type of destruction took place through the invoking of Victorian-era and imperial precedents of Britain’s greatness, cohesion, and power. By removing barriers placed by others, or pushing back on new intrusions, Thatcher-era policies could frame radical intervention as restoring Britain on its correct path.

Destruction took place through the invoking of Victorian precedents of Britain’s greatness. By removing barriers placed by others, Thatcher-era policies could frame radical intervention as restoring Britain on its correct path.

This is one reason why, even though Thatcher personally voted for the entry into the European Economic Community years earlier, the roots of precedent thinking which have fuelled Brexit can be traced back to this time. During the years that the Conservative Party was out of power, this pattern in explaining Britain’s history of postwar change as needing to be selectively undone did not go away. It appeared in a partial and complex form in New Labour’s rhetoric; while under Tony Blair, the Labour Party often described its role as a “modernising” force, it also attempted to position itself as the heir to liberal traditions, and to a neutralised, inoffensive “labour tradition” reframed as benign social democracy. While Blair wanted to frame New Labour as a “new dawn”, in practice the party’s approach to “modernisation” broadly meant continuing to remake the public sector in the image of the free market, as Stuart Hall noted in 2003. More significantly, however, even when Labour appealed to the past during the New Labour years, special care was taken to avoid the 1960s-1970s. The very idea of New Labour implied the need for a radical break with the Old, and ultimately upheld the shared principle of the party’s recent history as a failed experiment.

The very idea of New Labour implied the need for a radical break with the Old, and ultimately upheld the principle, shared with Thatcherism, of the party’s recent history as a failed experiment.

While striking this narrative balance was successful in fuelling its 1997 landslide, that electoral stronghold eroded at each following election for New Labour, and the narrative grew even less cohesive and riddled with inconsistencies at each turn. Following the global financial crisis, the uneasy Conservative-Liberal coalition elected in 2010 attempted to strike a similar balance between adopting the language of progress and appealing to an alternative tradition of One Nation conservatism. The language of One Nation defined who counted as part of that nation in ever-slenderer terms, through the twin strategies of brutal austerity, and the ferociously invasive May iteration of the “hostile environment”. The hostile environment policies made every point of interaction with the state predicated on the assumption that migrants were illegitimate, so that “suspicion becomes a form of national citizenship.” Similarly, the “reforms” of the welfare system vastly expanded the already-existing presumption of guilt or deception by the applicant, refining it to be more punitive, more demanding, more heavily policed. Both of these intrusions were explicitly designed to be transformational, to intervene on established patterns; and both of these were justified to defend a manufactured scarcity in the state, and therefore to protect a fictional norm at the nation’s core from the onslaught of difference. “One Nation” as a palliative to ease the tensions of coalition, however, did not signify the rejection of restorationist precedent thinking within the Conservative Party, and it laid the ground for further escalation.

European relations had been contentious throughout Thatcher’s premiership, where the conflict between arch-conservative, traditionalist conservatism and monetarist, free market radicalism was especially fraught. The European Community, and its moves towards greater monetary, economic, and border integration, were inherently focused on removing distinctions between member nations, and therefore could be seen as interrupting legal and institutional precedents at the level of the nation. At the same time, those barriers were being removed in favour of the kind of economic integration which would facilitate easier movement of capital, and while new regulations were part of this process, the European Community was founded with the goal of constructing and streamlining a single market. This tension cut through the debates around around the European Exchange Rate Mechanism that led to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990, which persisted through the debates on the Maastricht Treaty under Major. (Those events also formed the background to the formation of the Anti-Federalist League in 1991, which would be renamed UKIP in 1993.)

These conflicts around the value of idealised national traditions relative to expansionist European market integration would persist, and eventually escalate, during the Conservatives’ period of opposition, and this conflict deeply influenced Cameron’s approach. As part of his campaign to become leader of the Conservatives in 2005, David Cameron had promised to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the European Peoples’ Party group in the European Parliament, indicating his willingness to concede to Eurosceptic demands. After The Sun switched editorial support to the Conservatives in September 2009, Cameron wrote an open letter to their readers in November 2009, offering a ‘cast iron promise’ to hold a referendum on the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, or Lisbon Treaty. This did not take place, partly because the UK bill ratifying the treaty had been passed the previous year, and the treaty itself would come into force only weeks later. This tactic would be one Cameron would draw on again in 2015; after five years in coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ election manifesto put forward the commitment to hold a referendum on EU membership, theoretically placating Conservative Eurosceptics, while fending off an electoral threat from UKIP.

Beyond those short-term strategic goals, the decision to hold a binary referendum made little legislative sense, in that integration meant that the distinctions between member parties could not be easily reinstated. Proposing the question implied a simple solution which would not be possible, as the British Government is discovering. There was no legal precedent for how this would occur under EU law, in that leaving the Union had never been done before; again, unprecedented action being pursued in the name of restoration, drawn from a familiar rhetorical playbook. By the time of the referendum, warnings against “1970s-style socialism” by Cameron, or “1970s blend of divisiveness and business-bashing and union control” by Johnson, were well-established historical caricatures used to demonise Labour in the present. The progression from deriding the decade as a series of socialist failures, to a series of more general failures, was made easier by the established pattern of Conservative figures warning against various figures “turning into” Ted “Who Governs?” Heath. The expansion of the “rolling back” rhetoric therefore grew from existing explanations: mistakes were made in the 1970s; now they must be undone. The appeal for those who support this view of EU membership lies perhaps partly in the simplicity of its framing. If joining the EU gave away sovereignty to some other entity, then surely that can be taken back, as if power had the properties of three-dimensional objects, given as gifts which could be reclaimed years after being handed to an ungrateful recipient.

If joining the EU gave away sovereignty to some other entity, then surely that can be taken back, as if power had the properties of three-dimensional objects, given as gifts which could be reclaimed years after being handed to an ungrateful recipient.

The problem with these stories is that their power does not necessarily reflect their correspondence to realities, even when they “make sense”. In this case, Brexit is not simply rolling back the frontiers of a European state, and sovereignty is not a finite object that can be moved around at will. Brexit involves dissolving and remaking legal structures which are interwoven. The world has changed since 1975 and therefore nothing can simply be “undone” or returned to that context. It must be actively made anew. Precedent thinking’s compelling power helped propel the Conservative Party into positions of power, but that does not mean that it reflects the legal and economic realities being faced.

In order to even propose the Brexit referendum, Cameron was therefore unleashing culturally-conservative precedent thinking from the market radicalism it used to be yoked to. The decision to not only hold the referendum, but to treat it as a mandate for policy, the political balance which was the core of the Thatcherite narrative composite has broken down. Now, the symbolic is not only ascendant, it is dictating the political show. Its needs and demands are imposed politically above all others; the colour of a passport, the shape of a banana, are so important that the barely-remembered (by the English) partition of Ireland could raise recurrent practical difficulties for a Brexit settlement, and a new border could be drawn around Kent. In this logic, unprecedented borders are being devised to correct imagined historical errors. It is of course not historically new for there to be a disconnect between actual political action, and how it is seen or described. The shape and nature of the current gap, however, indicates the voraciousness of exclusionary cultural conservatism which drives this idea of repairing a breach of precedent. The political symbolism of winding back, of restoring, of erasing interventions and removing mistakes, is being pursued at the expense of both former allies as well as opponents, and overrides other precedents in favour of the primary goal. As a structure of feeling, Brexit’s precedent thinking overrides all other precedents, in favour of one national story, pursued specifically because of its exclusionary power.

Through this pattern of reading the present moment as the culmination of a narrow, continuous historical narrative, British elite political culture was predisposed to a symbolically rich, and materially violent, response to COVID-19. Not long after 20 March 2020, the BT Tower messages slipped back into more familiar symbolic messages, echoing the wider patterns of government framing: stay at home slogans, and announcing the times of “clap for carers,” the movement perversely co-opted by a political and media class to venerate the same NHS which they had sought for decades to gut into a corporate marketplace. These cheery broadcast fictions of unity conflicted with the very disparate experiences of the pandemic across Britain, where COVID-19 has further compounded existing racial, class, regional, gender, and social divisions, running through existing fault lines of inequality. These widening injustices added resonance and further impetus to Black Lives Matter and trans rights protests; yet the images broadcast from the BT Tower, and in official rhetoric, were of an artificial unity, where everyone was pitching in together against a common “enemy”. Amongst commemorations of VE Day, Armed Forces Day, and VJ Day, the BT Tower marked the date of the then-postponed London Pride events by broadcasting the Pride flag (notably, not including trans flag stripes). Drawing on Churchillian analogies which Brexit had left at his fingertips, Johnson’s attempts to associate a virus with the Second World War reflected the importance of invoking the most powerful precedent available, even where the content of that precedent was based on mythic fiction rather than reality. The binaristic framing of Second World War precedents, of “us” and “them”, also proved useful when opposing the “enemy within”, or the resurgence of protest movements against the idealisation of imperial cruelty. During the BLM protests in London in June 2020, the idea of potentially moving a statue of Churchill from Parliament Square was one that Johnson swore to “resist with every breath in [his] body.” The very principle of ideal tradition and greatness could be “defended” through the proxy of defending slavers’ and imperialists’ statues, tangibly illustrating the narrow, canonical chain of authority which Conservative precedent thinking locates themselves within.

The persistence of this all-purpose militant language, even after Johnson’s own experience of the virus might have cautioned him towards its inadequacy for use against microorganisms, illustrates how structurally reliant British conservatism is on Churchillian tropes of “Britain Alone”. The nationalist focus also indicates how little awareness the British government has with countries which have achieved temporary successes in COVID-19 management, even when these include Commonwealth nations which theoretically appeal to Brexit-era Conservative imperial nostalgia. Rather than trying to look for lessons from the present from outside its borders, Britain has looked to ill-fitting mythologies of the past. In a global pandemic, postcolonial melancholic allusions to fighting them on the beaches indicate how narrow the library of precedent-bound thinking which political rhetoric draws from has become, and how locating the present in this lineage distorts how it is perceived.

In a global pandemic, postcolonial melancholic allusions to fighting them on the beaches indicate how narrow the library of precedent-bound thinking which political rhetoric draws from has become, and how locating the present in this lineage distorts how it is perceived.

Thinking in terms of precedent, and looking to the past either as a playbook for present action, or as a single story whose interruptions need to be corrected and erased, is also a risk factor for the left. This is not only the case in terms of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and its ongoing struggle to establish its own relationship to its electoral legacy, and to agree upon its future direction. Thinking in terms of narrow banks of historical precedents was also a tendency which both Stuart Hall, in 1986’s “Gramsci and Us”, and Raymond Williams, in a number of works including 1983’s “Socialists and Coalitionists”, warned against. In the context of the persistence of some left politics which still contained a belief in the inevitability of some kind of revolution, propelled by an unstoppable engine of history, these kinds of warnings from Hall and Williams constituted a call to pay attention, as Tom Gann has recently noted, to what Gramsci called the “correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural.”6

In practice, this means considering that the exposure of fissures and contradictions in a dominant political rhetoric, does not necessarily mean that its collapse is near, or inevitable. The paradox is, particularly in the case of “Gramsci and Us,”” that Hall and Williams are frequently turned towards at times of crisis, when events feel “unprecedented”; the question for many is “What would Stuart Hall say?” Yet the advice that Hall and Williams often did give at moments of transformation was to avoid looking for a historical script to apply neatly to the present, or to assume that older categories of analysis will continue to apply.

This is not to say that these writers suggested that there were no lessons to draw from the past, and personally as a historian, I would certainly not advocate for a view of history that implies there’s nothing to learn or gain from considering the past. Rather, the point is to avoid unthinkingly reaching for the past as a narrow anaesthetic for the imagined wounds of an elite class, or to seek the sedative quality of continuity through deferring to precedent for its own sake. These kinds of approaches maintain the structural exclusions which elevate particular stories consistently above all others. The problem is not using the past, but rather, assuming that looking for precedents, or trying to heal breaches of precedent, is the only way, or best way to use it.

Five years before E.P. Thompson wrote of the need to “rescue” the experiences of working class people from “the enormous condescension of posterity”, Raymond Williams’ 1958 work Culture and Society consistently urged its readers to be attuned to the “qualitative” experiences of social upheaval in shaping the worldviews of nineteenth century writers.7 Pointing out the parallels between definitions of the most “decisive” period of the Industrial Revolution, and the lifetime of William Blake in the years 1757-1827, Williams argued that these years of radical change were “qualitative” in nature, and “felt in a personal as well as a general way”:

The changes we receive as record were experienced in these years, on the senses: hunger, suffering, conflict, dislocation; hope, energy, vision, dedication. The pattern of change was not background, as we may now be inclined to study it; it was, rather, the mould in which general experience was cast.8

This was the same period of industrial transformation which Marx and Engels would characterise as “all that is solid melt[ing] into air”. This was primarily intended to describe the interruption of economic and social certainties, but given the much-quoted life of this phrase, its capacity to speak to the subjective experience of rapid, unexpected change must be noted as well. It was this aspect which Marshall Berman took up in his 1983 work of this name, which traced the artistic and intellectual impact of these certainties not only breaking down, but disappearing entirely, leaving no wreckage to use as a point of orientation in navigating the future.9 Unprecedented times.

What Williams argues for is an attempt to understand the past which actively centres people’s lived experiences of change, the “qualitative” dimensions of living through upheaval, and viewing historical change not as a backdrop to life, so much as being built through the sum of those lived transformations. This reminder from Williams to refuse to allow historical narratives to become abstracted from the human experiences of transformation, is both about the specific period he is discussing, and is about advocating for a way of seeing history as well. Williams is arguing here for a specific reading of a time characterised by swathes of events which might have been viewed as unprecedented, and which were experienced by the writers he studied in Culture and Society as wrenching disruptions in individual lives and perspectives as well as in social and economic structures. It is also an argument for interpreting historical change not as a “background” but as shaping consciousness and ways of seeing.

Rather than looking to the past for a precedent that will govern what choices should be made, or how events will play out, this kind of use of the past is one which centres feeling through awareness of difference. Williams is not specifically asking readers to empathise with the experience of the Industrial Revolution, but to unsettle their familiarity with it through hindsight, and instead to consider its tumultuous nature as a personal and cultural experience, not purely social and economic. It is an injunction to consider experiences not because they might dictate to us in the manner of precedent, or because they might provide a map that can be followed for future similar situations. It is more to say that nobody can respond to change like William Blake, because nobody lived the specific life of Blake, and that is exactly why his work remains so enduring, so incisive and powerful. The past can be drawn on for meaningful connections in times of change, in this view, not because it gives certainty, but connects us with experiences of navigating uncertainty. Stories about the past are full of people facing times of disruption and change, and trying to make sense of them, without knowing what the future will be.

Embracing the potential of this alternative political language, of conviviality in the face of chaos, is especially important in the face of the escalating commitment by the right to exclusive symbolic politics. In the face of astronomical numbers of deaths and infections, in January 2021, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick elected to push through planning regulation changes in order to ‘save’ statues from “woke militants” seeking to “censor the past”. These regulations will seek to bolster the concept of precedent itself, making it harder for statuary to be removed once it is erected. Once a figure is elevated to a pedestal, it is therefore meant to be hard for that position to be altered. The pedestal itself, and the authority it confers, is therefore being strengthened, in the face of material and intellectual challenge.

This insistence on a fossilised, static and absolute historical narrative is a problem for the left, but it is also a problem for anyone interested in understanding the past beyond its use as an ideological weapon by the Conservative Party. The social movements, and the historical scholarship, which has been singled out by Conservative pundits for especial criticism in the past year has been that which has sought to convey the value of lives and experiences which have not had access to pedestals. The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in June 2020, following years of procedural effort to have the statue formally removed, was not censorship, or erasing history, but was a historical act rejecting Colston’s veneration in the present. Similarly, the Colonial Countryside project, with its modest goals of narrating colonial connections of National Trust properties, has been criticised and condemned for the very fact of its existence. Yet toppling Colston, and telling the stories of the Colonial Countryside, are ultimately undoing erasures which had already taken place. They are expansive approaches to the past, refusing the authority of precedents and pedestals in determining historical value, and insisting on the need for stories to be retold and re-examined without being frozen into a fixed absolutism.

Resisting the absolute authority of precedent, then, is a kind of convivial solidarity across time, and a grace which we might also extend to ourselves in the present. By moving beyond the narrow grammar of precedent, we have room to meet the specificity of each historical moment. What is the mould in which experience is being cast? What is shared, and what is specific to the moment, to particular groups, to regions, to nations? How can I attend to the specificities of other experiences distinctive from my own? This is something like what Hall advocated for in analysing the crises of the present; the need to attend to what is now, rather than to assume that established plots will play out. In Williams’ terms, it is the “qualitative” fullness of each moment, “experienced on the senses”, “in a personal as well as a general way.” To capture both the personal and the general, to “see the world in the grain of sand”, in a way which insists on the specificity of each grain as well as its interconnection with wider wholes. Thinking expansively about the pasts which we can connect to, also helps avoid the paralysis of viewing the present as unmoored from all stories which might help make sense of it, and all inspirations which might be drawn from to challenge or intervene on injustices and exclusions.

To capture both the personal and the general, to "see the world in the grain of sand", in a way which insists on the specificity of each grain as well as its interconnection with wider wholes.

Rethinking the past in ways that are more open, more convivial, less hierarchical, creates more spaces for the kind of empathy and human connection through challenge and crisis which can sustain us in the present, not because our experiences are the same, but precisely because of their difference. Loosening the bounds of precedent redirects us back towards the power of explanation and story, and ultimately of understanding and connection, rather than the isolating conformity of tradition.


  1. Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.132-133. 

  2. Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, & Brian Roberts. [1978]. 2013. Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan. 

  3. Paul Gilroy. 2005. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press. p.90. 

  4. I have written about this in my 2019 book Milton Keynes in British Culture: Imagining England London: Routledge. The 2017 thesis which this book was based on is free to download here

  5. Paul Gilroy. 2011. “The closed circle of Britain’s postcolonial melancholia,” in The Literature of Melancholia. Edited by Martin Middeke and Christina Walde. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p.188. 

  6. Antonio Gramsci. [1929-35]. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart. p.178. 

  7. Raymond Williams. [1958] 1963. (1958) Culture and Society 1780-1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin. E.P. Thompson. [1963]. 1991. The Making of the English Working Class, London: Penguin. p. 12. 

  8. Williams. Culture and Society. p.34. 

  9. Marshall Berman, All that is Solid melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso. 1983. 


Author:

Lauren Pikó (@book_learning)

Lauren Pikó is a historian and writer based in Melbourne. Her book Milton Keynes in British Culture: Imagining England is published by Routledge.