The idea of centrist politics as associated with moral ideals such as temperance is one which has become increasingly attractive to those who feel threatened by political polarisation from “both sides”. Last week’s British political news demonstrates this preoccupation, with a group of former Labour MPs deciding to address the impending political crisis of Brexit by forming the stopgap solution of “The Independent Group”, a collective of dissenters who could not find sufficient ideological common ground for a formal party identity. The temptation to make historical comparisons with the Labour party’s 1981 split has been overwhelming to journalists and academics, particularly given the well-known historical failure of the Social Democratic Party to win the broad-based electoral support they sought.
Yet in considering British politics fracturing under the pressure of Brexit, it is important to consider Stuart Hall’s injunction to avoid seeking prescriptive answers from history. In Gramsci and Us, Hall proposed that instead of asking figures such as Marx or Gramsci “to solve our problems for us”, that it is better to follow their impetus to be specific to the historical moment at hand:
When a conjecture unrolls, there is no ‘going back.’ History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’.
The discipline of the conjuncture which Brexit imposes is historically unique; indeed this lack of precedent for understanding let alone coherently acting on its entanglements of symbolic and material politics helps drive its chaos. This is not to say that history is of no use; merely that it cannot be used prescriptively. It can provide a means of understanding and contextualising current events, and provide critical tools to render the cultural logic of the present more discernible and more contingent.
My book Milton Keynes in British Culture: Imagining England provides one way of reapproaching political narratives of recent British history. It traces the evolution of ideals of landscape through postwar reconstructionism, to the brief period during the late 1960s where the Wilson governments attempted to rethink state planning. Milton Keynes was designated during this period, in 1967; it was designed to create a low density city of 50% public housing, while imposing “no fixed conception of how people ought to live”. Its planners sought to “plan themselves out of a job” through creating a framework for community self-determination and participation. At its core, Milton Keynes was therefore predicated on an idea that British cities could be valuable in ways that had not yet been historically modelled; that there was scope for change, and that such change might create historically new forms of social value.
The wider cultural response to this “open” framework of value, with its deliberate challenges to traditional aesthetics, was consistently critical, and often negative. Media and political criticisms of Milton Keynes throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, fuelled by the IMF crisis and escalating in the leadup to the Winter of Discontent, read the new city as but one example of a wider trend of a deterministic, dystopian state, whose pursuit of the future led to the betrayal of the past. Specifically, the economic crises of 1970s Britain were understood as deriving from abandoning tradition, by remaking and rebuilding British landscapes and society differently to their pre-war forms. This “mapping together” of different elements of change into a singular crisis narrative helped link the “postcolonial melancholia” regarding imperial decline to the landscape of the postwar “socialist” state. This shared a logic of change itself as an enemy to tradition and to national prestige, fueling media narratives of the Winter of Discontent as a terminal crisis of the nation. In this context, the 1979 Conservative electoral campaign posited the party as able to radically restoring the nation to its “correct” trajectory; as Hall noted elsewhere, it was this rhetorical victory which was Thatcherism’s most significant one.
Yet Milton Keynes continued to develop throughout the 1980s, and it formed an ongoing symbolic touchstone during the political debates around “the middle ground” of politics. As a town which had become a symbol of deterministic socialism in tabloid newspapers by 1979, the town’s economic and cultural adaptation to the 1980s, through opening its Shopping Building and embracing TV advertising, singled the town out for further criticism for becoming too capitalist. Partly through puns about its name as a compromise between Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes, and partly through discussions of geography and economy, media reports on Milton Keynes frequently discussed it in relation to contemporary debates around the new “moderate” centre in British politics. This centre ground was contested and claimed by both the Conservatives and the SDP; it would later be claimed by New Labour. Each group framed their claims to the moderate centre as part of their politics being natural, historically venerated “common sense”, with legitimacy arising from long-standing patterns of weathering ideological extremes. The only acceptable radicalism in this framework is that which “rolls back” the radicalism of predecessors; the idea of trying to create something new without invoking return and continuity, is therefore to reject tradition as an authority.
While being consistently invoked in debates around the identity of the centre, Milton Keynes therefore occupied an uneasy relationship with it. Even for its “moderate” adaptive capacity, and its ability to use its flexible planning structure to survive in a hostile climate, Milton Keynes was not able to escape ongoing criticism for the one thing which it could not erase or change about itself; its very newness. The fact that a government might build a new city unlike those which went before, and whose form and identity might be shaped by and for its residents, rather than by the unfettered vagaries of the market, has continued to pose a challenge to the idea of what an “authentic” English urban space should look like, and who it should be for. Milton Keynes’ supposedly inherent inability to retain meaning, a common critique of the town throughout its history, speaks to its inability to testify to a particular kind of canonical, hierarchical cultural encoding which a “good” city is meant to impart. In its place is an alternative set of meanings, about pursuing open, unknown sources of value in a future which as its planners suggested “could not be determined”.
The persistent language of historical return in postwar British culture ultimately speaks to a cultural logic which is fundamentally closed, exclusive, and precludes change itself. These antipathies to the new are embedded in aesthetic and affective norms, and reproduce themselves through judgments about what is authentic and desirable.
Thinking about Milton Keynes cannot, of course, in itself give us an answer to the challenges of contemporary British politics. Thinking through its challenges to deep-seated cultural norms, however, provides a way to trace, and possibly to challenge, attitudes to where cultural authority is seen to reside.