Memory, meaning and multi-directionality: 'remembering' austerity Britain

Rebecca Bramall

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter


The idea that we are experiencing a new ‘age of austerity’ has become the dominant means of describing life in post-recession, deficit-cutting Britain. A very wide range of topical issues have been animated through reference to popular historical knowledge about Britain’s policies and practices during the austerity years of 1939-55, including debates about consumerism, the role of the state, food security, national and domestic economies, and the environment. In popular culture, lifestyle media promote ‘make do and mend’ solutions, utility ware surfaces as retro style in fashion and design, and proponents of urban agriculture encourage us to ‘dig for victory’. The audiences who seem to have the greatest appetite for austerity are, for the most part, much too young to ‘remember’ the privations of the home front and post-war rationing. What’s more, opportunities to engage with austerity in the present moment tend to happen in the context of consumer culture – via the purchase of a ‘ration book’ tea towel, or a visit to an ‘austerity chic’ restaurant, for example. The relation to the past revealed in these transactions is therefore a highly mediated and instrumental one. What questions should we be asking of austerity discourses in order to understand their meaning and evaluate their significance? Can we describe everyday consumer interactions with the new austerity culture in terms of ‘memory’? And if so, how should an analysis of austerity culture proceed? This chapter locates these questions in relation to longstanding debates in memory studies about the role of popular media and consumer culture in shaping historical imaginaries. It goes on to argue that in order to get to grips with the significance of austerity culture and the political-ideological ends to which these discourses work, we need to rethink our critical orientation towards popular historical representation. In particular, we should consider that what is at stake when it comes to the popular historical imagination is not simply the cultural memory of the past – that is, our understanding and knowledge of those events that operate as its referent – but pressing present-day issues, anxieties, concerns and desires.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritish Cultural Memory and the Second World War
EditorsL. Noakes, J. Pattinson
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9781441142269
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2013


  • age of austerity
  • austerity Britain
  • memory studies
  • cultural memory
  • meaning


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