by Thomas Birtchnell
Slogans from the past can in some special cases carry through to the present. Some slogans even increase in value through having their meanings mutated. So, for example, it is common now to be told to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in the news, in the kitchen (on a mug), in the shop (on a poster) or in the high street (on a t-shirt) and recently even at a Royal wedding. Motivational slogans like this one utilise a well-worn methodology, which we are all very familiar with from marketing, namely the appeal to (and parody of) cultural pride.
Britain’s Home Front in the Second World War was a particularly productive period for motivational campaigns. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’, betrays the urgency and desperation of this period and summons up a comfortable and candid populism still popular today. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a slogan that brings to mind an imperial ‘Britishness’ (modesty, aloofness, prudence, resolve) and was conceived to promote a sense of resilience in times of austerity. Interestingly, many of the slogans from this particular campaign have mutated into a context that appears to be the polar opposite of the austerity of the Home Front, namely of consumerism. ‘Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake’ we are now told.
The threat of imminent invasion, widespread shortages of staple foods and commodities, and the Luftwaffe’s blanket bombing required an exceptional campaign response. The government unit entrusted with this social intervention needed to promote action in the face of adversity in spite of waning morale bordering on widespread panic. Ironically, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has only gained notoriety in hindsight, undoubtedly due to its anachronistic language. Nostalgia too has played a key role in the ongoing success of the Home Front austerity campaigns. Many people’s grandparents in Britain (including my own) continued to exercise the stoic values they had learned during the Home Front after the war (thrift, prudence, repair, reuse) in marked contrast to their baby-boomer offspring.
So then slogans are important historical sources in themselves. In my recent article for Area I consider another slogan from the period directly following the end of the war. ‘Fill the Ships and We Shall Fill the Shops’, I argue, was in fact a mutation of the popular austerity campaigns of Churchill’s government such as ‘Make Do and Mend’.
The Labour Party had inherited a looming catastrophe and so Sir Richard Stafford Cripps was appointed to lead another equally impactful campaign, this time targeting prosperity rather than austerity to encourage people to drop localism and become global again. Cripps, (who was haunted by the unfortunate malapropism ‘Stifford Crapps’ allegedly thanks to Winston Churchill) was a big fan of facts. Indeed the brochure he produced for the campaign is full of crisp statistics and quaint illustrations of little ships and stick-people. This campaign is fascinating for geographers principally because it represents the first serious imagining of geographies of manufacturing that we are all familiar with today and that we call ‘globalisation’.
The author: Dr Thomas Birtchnell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Birtchnell T 2013 Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturing Area doi: 10.1111/area.12050
Bale T 2013 The rise of Ukip – more blip than permanent shift? The Guardian 12 June
New Home Front 2013 The New Home Front website
Roberts L 2011 Royal wedding: Kate Middleton and Prince William reinvent Cool Britannia The Telegraph 4 March