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Decolonising the Countryside and Other News from Year Zero
By Emma Webb
This article is by Emma Webb, a social and political commentator and the Director of Common Sense Society UK. You can read her Substack here.
Since my speech about Year Zero last week at the National Conservatism conference we have been deluged with yet more glowing examples of what I am calling the ‘endless present mindset’.
Unlike the Tate Modern (or the Tate Postmodern, as it should be rechristened), the Tate Britain is known for being the place to go if you want to see Britain’s classical art. When I worked nearby, I would sometimes slink off during my lunchbreak to visit their pre-Raphaelite collection, including one of my favourite paintings, John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. It is a work of art that conjures Britain’s ancient, enchanted, pastoral soul.
Tough luck if you want to do the same! The painting has been purged as part of the Tate’s new rehanging which now ‘centres’ radical politics, colonialism and environmental catastrophism. Why? To provide an “inclusive view of art history,” of course, and showcase “the growing diversity of the Tate’s collection”.
Unsurprisingly, given what the Tate did to poor Hogarth, the works that remain are now repudiated and slagged-off by captions that filter history through familiarly reductive blood-stained spectacles. Spencer Gore’s Rule Britannia – a painting of an early twentieth century patriotic ballet – “ignores the contested and often violent history of England’s control over the British Isles”. The Victorian room itself warns that the artists “often overlook, caricature or romanticise the experiences of women, people of colour, workers or those living in poverty”, while a sculpture of a broken Georgian-style chair is captioned “English furniture in the 18th century was often made from mahogany produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean”.
Reportedly, it’s all Black Lives Matter, Brexit, Donald Trump, climate catastrophe, and migration - the perfect place to take your kids if you want them to come down with a nasty bout of eco-anxiety and self-loathing.
In his Telegraph Review, Alastair Sooke nailed it when he said, ‘The V-sign it flicks at its surroundings is unmistakable, and encapsulates the antagonistic spirit of the rehang generally’. There is no room for love and affection, only disruption and repudiation.
As with historical figures like Churchill, Nelson and Sir Francis Drake, it is always the most beloved cultural symbols that are most publicly desecrated.
Perhaps because it finds itself in the sour spot between climate and colonialism, the countryside and all its trappings has become the most recent target. Not only was the Chelsea Flower Show the latest target of Just Stop Oil’s bourgeois stunts, TV gardener Monty Don says it’s too white, middle-class and middle-aged. The “old farts” are “blocking the way ahead”.
The Royal Horticultural Society’s diversity ambassador, Manoj Malde agrees – English country gardens (rose gardens get a specific mention), made by those with double-barrel names are putting off non-white communities: “How d
oes that connect to someone from my background? Or from an African or Mediterranean background? It doesn’t”.
Why on earth not? Am I guilty of ‘orientalism’ because I find traditional Islamic gardens beautiful? Is it a mark of progressivism, now, to reduce yourself to, and imprison yourself within an identity, and condemn yourself to only loving, enjoying, or appreciating things that ‘originate’ from your ‘background’? Not long ago that would have been considered small minded and bigoted – how last century to believe natural beauty transcends differences!
Unfortunately, unless you can trace your ancestry back to the Achaemenid Empire, you can’t get a free pass by replacing your English cottage garden with a walled paradise garden – because that would be cultural appropriation – so ‘rewilding’ it is just about the only option open to you (and conveniently climate-justice adjacent, to boot).
You’re in double trouble if you have a rose garden in rural Wiltshire. In March, the Rural Racism Project was reported to be examining the countryside for evidence of racism and colonialism – much, I expect, like a witch-hunter checking behind the ears for signs of the devil. It is high time to decolonise this Green Unpleasant Land (the title of a book by Prof Corrinne Fowler, who is part of the project, and was also behind the National Trust’s tenuous ‘naughty list’ of properties linked to colonialism).
To make the countryside more inclusive, one group has erected signs pointing to Mecca across the Peak District. And let’s not forget the nifty way in which the Brecon Beacons were decolonised and purged of any fossil fuel associations in one fell swoop – talk about feeding two birds with one scone.
Meanwhile, in the East End, one theatre attracted criticism after it held a ‘black out’ performance – at which white people were not welcome, so that the audience would be “free from the white gaze”. The Epsom Derby followed a similar logic, and next weekend will have an LGBTQIA+ area – something the Jockey Club feels necessary to make the race more “inclusive”. It will be in a festival-style tent, with a bar, DJ and drag queen performances, “blend[ing] entertainment and education”, with a library of queer literature. You don’t have to be gay to see how the whole idea is offensively patronising…
Never satisfied however much it gorges itself, this mindset even has its eye on the most objective target of all – mathematics. Following guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) fifty of Britain’s most eminent mathematicians were so concerned they signed an open letter. Like watching a greedy snake eyeing up an elephant, guidance says Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) “should permeate the curriculum and every aspect of the learning experience”. For example, teaching should note that “some early ideas in statistics were motivated by their proposers’ support for eugenics, some astronomical data were collected on plantations by enslaved people, and, historically, some mathematicians have recorded racist or fascist views or connections to groups such as the Nazis”. Quelle surprise, according to the guidance, the Maths curriculum also has “a vital role to play in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals”. Eco-Ethnomathematics, the new frontier!
In the broadest sense, according to this logic, all institutions, academic disciplines and the public realm must be gradually freed – in the broadest sense – from the ‘white, cis, straight, male gaze’ in order to be properly decolonised of historic systemic oppression. It is also the logic that explains perceived necessity of segregated ‘safe’ spaces, as a sort of interim measure, until the purge of evil eye accomplished.
Ultimately, everything old has got to go – and what is old is ever changing. That is the thing about Year Zero - by necessity, it is reborn every minute of every day. It wanders, destructively, through our cultural eco-system like a hungry ghost, never satiated.
The past is endlessly reconfigured to reflect an imagined Modern Britain. “Modern Britain” is understood reductively (even offensively) according to crudely defined identity categories – a plurality of prisons. “Modernity”, imbued with normative weight, is a command, and institutions crumble under the intense weight of its inevitability. This hubristic understanding of modernity understands itself removed from history – at the end of time – and everything is dissolved in the solvent of the endless present.