World·Analysis

For Queen's Jubilee, Boris Johnson leans on nostalgia for political gain

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to capitalize on the nostalgia in the air. His government is bringing back a traditional crown stamp on pint glasses and moving to allow shop owners to again sell produce by the pound. Both are being framed as benefits of the U.K.'s exit from the European Union.

British government to bring back pounds and pint glass crowns in bid to move past 'Partygate'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is aiming to capitalize on the air of nostalgia surrounding Queen Elizabeth's platinum jubilee. (David (Dee) Delgado/Reuters)

Queen Elizabeth has seen a great deal of change in British society during her 70 years on the throne. The territory where she reigns has shrunk. The influence of her United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been diminished.

Now, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, Her Majesty's government is taking steps to restore Britain to a self-described greatness after having had to conform to international standards.

Or at least to have Britons of a certain age dreaming about those days again when they enjoy a pint of ale or buy a pound of flour.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is keen to have voters talking about the glory of a mid-20th-century yesteryear, rather than the ongoing fallout from the "Partygate" scandal.

One historian calls it "nostalgia wars."

To coincide with the Jubilee, which will be celebrated over the upcoming four-day long weekend in the U.K., the British government is bringing back the crown stamp on pint glasses. It's a four-century-old tradition that was phased out with the implementation of the 2004 EU Measuring Instruments Directive.

Johnson, seen here in 2016, has been facing calls to resign over the 'Partygate' scandal, named after the lockdown rule-breaking parties held at 10 Downing Street. (Darren Staples/Reuters)

Johnson is also moving to allow shop owners to again sell produce by the pound, instead of using kilograms and grams, which the U.K. started adopting in the 1960s but accelerated the following decade when the country agreed to deeper European integration.

Both steps are being framed as benefits of the U.K.'s exit from the European Union. And they fit into a British Conservative pattern of leaning on England's past to define British identity.

"There is a hint of dishonesty about this … but that's not the point," Anand Menon, a professor of politics at King's College London, said. "It's about the message" Johnson is sending.

It's unclear whether "the whole 'Partygate' thing has eroded the prime minister's reputation to such an extent that he simply won't benefit from this," Menon said.

EU rules dictate that a pint glass at a pub is to be stamped with the letters "CE" for "conformité européenne" ("European conformity" in French). The letters confirm the glass holds exactly one pint. 

  • WATCH — CBC News Special: The Queen's Jubilee, Trooping the Colour, June 2, 5 a.m - 8:30 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem

From 1699, under the rule of King William III, pint glasses in England instead displayed a crown. As of Friday, the crown will start showing up in glasses in U.K. pubs again. 

Although the move may go unnoticed by many beer drinkers, the government used uniquely colourful language to play up its significance.

It's "a very fitting symbol of how the Queen's realm is being returned to her people now that they have been freed from the bureaucratic suzerain of Brussels," Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Tory-supporting tabloid the Daily Mail.

Britain's Conservative government is promising to bring back crowns on pint glasses in pubs, first introduced in England in 1699. (Shutterstock)

On Friday, the government is also launching a consultation on how to revive the imperial system of measurement of pounds and ounces. 

"EU regulation requires the sale of certain products under the metric system, but the prime minister has been clear he wants to consult on this," Boris Johnson's spokesperson told reporters this week.

  • WATCH — CBC News Special: The Queen's Jubilee, A Service of Thanksgiving, June 3, 5:30 a.m. - 9 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem.

That's where the "dishonesty" Anand mentions comes in.

EU rules did not prevent U.K. pub owners from serving ale in glasses adorned with a crown. Nor did Brussels prevent British retailers from providing shoppers with additional product information in pounds and ounces. But the European measures had to be displayed predominantly. As an EU member state, Britain had to comply, even when it came to measuring produce by the kilogram.

Labour MP Angela Eagle called Johnson's latest move a "pathetic" attempt to "weaponize nostalgia" for political gain.

Similarly, renowned University of Cambridge classics Prof. Mary Beard said Britons are living through "nostalgia wars."

"I'm about to be a pensioner and I feel anxious about this, because I think I'm the vote that is being appealed to here," Beard said in a BBC interview.

"I want to stick up and say: 'Not all us old people want to go back to imperial [measures].'"

Some revellers got an early start on Platinum Jubilee celebrations last weekend in East London. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Still, as London streets are draped in Union Jack flags to honour the Queen, tying this national moment to Brexit is "a political no-brainer," Menon said.

Brexit, after all, was an exercise in nostalgia in and of itself. The slogan that helped drive Britain out of the international alliance promoted the idea of taking the country "back" in time.

At the crossroads of Brexit and history

In the leadup to Britain's referendum on EU membership in 2016, Johnson and other Brexit supporters promised leaving the bloc would allow the U.K. to "take back control" of all its domestic and foreign matters from Brussels. 

Not unlike former U.S. president Donald Trump's pledge to "make America great again," the U.K.'s Leave campaign rested on a premise that Britons were better off before globalization, before increased immigration and before the country joined post-war multinational organizations.

Appealing to Britons' historical pride is also complicated by renewed scrutiny of colonialism.

"It can seem as if Britain is a nation obsessed with history, yearning for the stability and certainty of a vanished golden age," historian Hannah Rose Woods writes in the introduction to her new book, Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain.

British politicians and other personalities have been leaning on the past for more than 500 years, Woods writes. And the explanation, she says, is simple.

"Nostalgia offers us protection from our anxieties: the chance to escape our worries about what the future holds."

Indeed, speaking to Tory supporters in 2017, Rees-Mogg compared Brexit to victories in distant English history. "It's Waterloo, it's Agincourt, it's Crécy. We win all of these things," he said.

Central London is lined with Union Jacks in honour of Queen Elizabeth's 70 years on the throne. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

When Johnson led the Leave campaign, he hadn't yet lived at 10 Downing Street. His aura among euroskeptic Conservatives hadn't yet been tarnished by "Partygate."

Months into that saga, Johnson is still facing fresh calls to resign over the booze-fuelled gatherings held at his official residence and nearby government offices during COVID-19 lockdowns. A report by senior civil servant Sue Gray, released in full last week, illustrated how frequently and brazenly British rulemakers broke pandemic rules.

Menon, the politics professor, suspects Johnson's latest proposals aren't going to "rescue his ratings."

"The government wanted to get [Sue Gray's report] out, move on... and spend this week focusing on the Jubilee. But that's not what's happening.

"I think the person who'll come out of this very popular, at the end of this week, will be the Queen."

Thomas Daigle reported extensively on the Royals and Brexit while based at CBC's London bureau from 2016 to 2019. He's back in the U.K. to cover the Queen's Platinum Jubilee.

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