In April 2009, another series of posters appeared on British streets, this time under the auspices of the police. Based ostentatiously on ‘Keep Calm’, they share the same centred design, the same humanist sans serifs, but replacing the crown with the police badge. The written content consists of three slogans, all based on particular clichés used by the police in the popular imagination, albeit in one case with a decidedly sinister twist: ‘We’d Like to Give You a Good Talking To’, ‘Anything You Say May Be Taken Down and Used as Evidence’, and, remarkably, ‘You Have the Right Not to Remain Silent’. Underneath, in an extremely small, easily missed print, is the ‘official’ message, based on ‘the Policing Pledge’, one of the many managerial initiatives intended to ‘restore confidence’ or ‘enable choice’ in one or another public body. For instance, the ‘talking to’ poster’s pledge is to listen to the consumer of policing, while ‘not to remain silent’ suggests you make complaints against the police should they inconvenience you. In their split between an authoritarian exclamation and a liberal, caring small print which, supposedly, gives an amusing gloss to the large print, these are spectacular examples of disavowal and the use of irony to say appalling things unchallenged. The sleight of hand is thus: the pun, the pay-off, is in small print, reminding us that really the police force are all about helping old ladies across the road, ‘the police now pledge to listen…’, the truth is in large print. Given the recent suspension of habeas corpus, one genuinely does not have the right to remain silent. So while this ‘witty’ gesture claims to play with the brutally state-protecting image of the police, it also says, very loudly, that the rules no longer apply, as would be made obvious at the G20 protests on 1 April.
Essentially, the power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stoicism and muddling through, something which survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, and given to sudden outpourings of sentiment and grief, as over the deaths of celebrities like Diana Spencer or Jade Goody. The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years. At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of this idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) stoicism in the displayer of the poster or wearer of the T-shirt.
Unlike many forms of nostalgia, the memory invoked by the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is in no way based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other memorabilia based upon it, were most likely born in the 1970s or 1980s, and have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent statism it purports to exemplify. The poster is an example of the phenomenon given a capsule definition by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s: ‘Legislated Nostalgia’, that is, ‘to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.’
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