A British flag being carried at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony

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A husky female voice sings, “We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times, and the good.” It’s a song you’ve heard before, but more mournful, more tasteful. We see a black horse as it runs through a series of quintessentially English places, united by nostalgia and appalling weather. It runs past a blasted, sleety moor. A fully rigged 18th-century ship. The red bricks, smashed windows and rusting winding gear of a disused coal mine. A crowd of war veterans, with their medals. Multicultural families in a bland suburban estate. Workers in a clean, sleek new car factory. The lanes of a country town; and some children, running in raincoats across an icy-looking beach, which we then see, depopulated, but for a lone child and the horse.

The voiceover tells you that Lloyds Bank (symbolised, as you know, by that black horse) has been by your side for 250 years, and will remain so, whatever happens; even in a moment of crisis. Even on that blasted beach, devoid of life, it will still be there, as secure and strong and stable as the pound in your pocket. It is a chain of association that unites almost everything in the national landscape about which people are most sentimental. It aims to tap into a deep well of Englishness with the effectiveness of a shot of morphine right into the vein.

The first thing I was reminded of upon seeing this advertisement was a segment from Chris Morris’s 1994 satirical news programme The Day Today. It has been shared widely on social networks since July 2016, as the British media tries some strangely familiar approaches to the uncertainty created by the vote to leave the European Union. A constitutional crisis is caused by John Major – the colourless, almost parodically English and now almost forgotten living hyphen who served as Prime Minister between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – punching Queen Elizabeth II, in “some kind of drubbing incident”. In order to calm viewers’ nerves, a film is shown, which is, the newsreader tells us, “held in reserve for times of crisis”.

As “Jerusalem” plays, a stern upper-class narrator tells us Britain “is a nation built on the very scowling face of adversity, its dauntless spirit unbowed by any crisis. This is Britain at its best.” The montage shifts through a Union Jack, a bulldog, the white cliffs of Dover, City gents playing and skipping outside the Bank of England, a policeman sharing a spliff with a black woman, a country lane, a man giving his car to a woman waiting at a bus stop, grieving relatives being cheered up by a man with a squirting flower in his buttonhole, and a man looking for a light and being surrounded by children with matches and lighters. The narrator returns: “This is Britain, and in this glittering sea, this perfect fusion of man and mineral, we know that conflict will always perish in the brotherhood of flags.”

It is a joke, obviously, but the Lloyds Bank advert is not. It is all a little more sombre; apocalyptic, even. It is constantly raining, and the colour is drawn out – a hint of Threads, the 1984 TV docudrama about a nuclear winter, or The Road, the 2009 film set in a post-apocalyptic America. This is a real crisis, and one we all know about.

The advert has the useful and important side-effect of encouraging us to forget exactly the fact that Lloyds Bank, which will always be here, as sure as the white cliffs, continues to exist largely because of massive injections of public funds – that bailout of the banks, those venerable institutions that were nearly destroyed by the barely comprehensible high-tech world of collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps. The bailout is the main reason for the austerity inflicted upon the country since 2010, glimpsed, briefly, in the disused coal mine and the bleak housing estate. There is no logic to the Lloyds montage, but there doesn’t need to be – there’s a chain of associations instead, instinctive and gut-level. We’re all in this together – the country villages, the industrial towns, all races and cultures, all pulling together to get through what Morris’s narrator calls “the very scowling face of adversity”.

* * *

This imagery is, like many of the things people in Britain like to think are eternal, fairly recent. It comes originally from a body called the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), which existed for a few years in the 1920s and 1930s, founded by the Tory government of Stanley Baldwin. In short, the EMB’s role was to convince consumers in Britain and its vast multi-continental empire to buy Empire-made consumer goods, which were usually more expensive than those made in continental Europe, which were then being imported into the UK in large numbers. The EMB encouraged people to exchange economic rationality for patriotism.

The board was placed under the authority of the civil servant Stephen Tallents. As British imperial bureaucrats went, Tallents was exceptionally progressive, and assembled around him the likes of Frank Pick, who headed the EMB’s poster division, and the young left-wing filmmaker, critic and proponent of “documentary” (a term he invented) John Grierson, who headed its film unit.

The EMB’s creation was a major victory for a movement called “social imperialism”. It aimed to change customs laws so that Empire goods were taxed less than non-Empire, creating a single imperial bloc on the world market. Social imperialists aimed to change the image and reality of Empire, from a cash cow with an ideology of racial supremacy attached, into a public project which, for its proponents like Cecil Rhodes, could be a means to buying the allegiance of a potentially hostile working class to the British state. Supporters such as Viscount Milner referred to the Empire as a “great family”. Here was a metaphor that had purchase: a vast, industrial unit of global exploitation and trade was reimagined on the domestic scale.

If it is forgotten in poster or industrial design, the EMB is highly important in the history of British cinema. Tallents and Grierson had a remarkably avant-garde conception of the means for propagandising empire, described by historian Scott Anthony as “a mix of cutting-edge nostalgia, rustic sci-fi and neo-Soviet bombast”. Tallents propounded his ideas in a 1932 pamphlet, The Projection of England, a statement of intent for the EMB.

Soviet films such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, Viktor Turin’s Turksib and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia – none of them set in Russia itself, but in Ukraine and central Asia – showed what “an incomparable instrument for national expression the cinema might be”. The two most enduring of the EMB’s films, Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1933) and Robert Flaherty’s Industrial Britain (1931), are attempts to create a British imperial analogue to Soviet propaganda films.

With its pulsating, woozy music, images of ritual dances and atmosphere of the past in the present, Song of Ceylon is intense and heady, but Industrial Britain is rougher. A heroic narration, imposed by Grierson, runs alongside captivating depictions of the intricate processes of work in potteries, mines and glass furnaces. “The industrial towns are not quite so drab as they seem – behind their smoke, beautiful things are being made!” booms the voiceover.

Both Song of Ceylon and Industrial Britain manage to be formally radical and deeply, poignantly beautiful, while stressing that imperial subjects in Sri Lanka and workers in the north of England are just fine with their place in the world.

* * *

The EMB was wound up in 1933, and its film production arm was rebranded by Tallents as the GPO Film Unit, this time under the less controversial aegis of the Post Office. Here too, though, the Empire had a shadowy presence. The most famous GPO film is Basil Wright’s wonderful Night Mail, a fast, witty combination of Dziga Vertov and George Formby, tracking the postal service from London to Aberdeen.

The same team – the director, along with composer Benjamin Britten and poet W H Auden – later made God’s Chillun, originally titled Negroes, which attempted to answer some uncomfortable questions about the Empire, such as how it emerged, how it grew and where it made its money. Set in the Caribbean, it tells us about how Britain enslaved millions of Africans and shipped them off as – perishable – cargo, and about how good British people then ended the trade. It also tells us that things have changed now, and that we’ll help the children of the people we enslaved to become good democratic citizens. At the time the film was made, Britain’s Caribbean colonies were convulsed by labour unrest. Dozens were killed. Unsurprisingly, the film has been largely forgotten.

After Night Mail, the most famous film by one of this milieu is Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain, made when Tallents’ Film Unit had morphed again into the Crown Film Unit, subsumed under the wartime Ministry of Information. This time, we’re extremely close to the aesthetic of the Lloyds advert and The Day Today’s emergency film. A wordless montage of wartime scenes cuts from music halls to concert halls, children playing, workers singing and, in one memorable image surely seen by the makers of the Lloyds advert, a horse walking past a factory’s smoking chimneys. It is an image of unity across classes, equality in struggle, fortitude and cosiness; and to use the title of Jennings’s last film, made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, it’s a “family portrait”.

These films have had an enduring presence in British life ever since. Every party election broadcast that juxtaposes a factory, a farm and a scene of mild eccentricity owes something to them, whether they continue the EMB/GPO/Crown Film Unit’s mildly social democratic politics or not. They’re a major presence in Danny Boyle’s widely praised, openly Jennings-influenced opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, and in Ken Loach’s Spirit of ‘45. The process that already began in the 1930s of an institution literally founded to make propaganda for the British Empire gradually letting the Empire fade into the background is even more apparent in these works. Of course, their politics are not those of the Lloyds Bank advert. In the case of The Spirit of ‘45, we’re dealing with a film that explicitly aims to counter the narrative of “austerity” imposed by the need to forget the bailout of the banks, in favour of a reminder that a much poorer country considered it possible to build a system of social security in order to turn the rhetoric of national unity into something resembling a reality.

The film isn’t just influenced by the documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s, it explicitly cites them, and borrows their imagery. Yet the Empire – still very much in place – is mentioned just once, when one interviewee tells Loach, “We had the biggest empire in the world, and the worst slums in Europe.” The wager is that the left can produce its own images of national unity and solidarity, in such a way that it can wrest control of the narrative back from the right, who are unsurprisingly more adept at patriotic propaganda.

* * *

With Brexit, these images, always just under the surface, are becoming dominant. Our great trading history is invoked, without much thought as to what exactly it was we were trading (among other things, people). Our unity is trumpeted, at a time when the gap between rich and poor is bigger than it has been since before the First World War. We must all struggle through an adversity largely created by subsidies to the extremely rich. We’re all in the same boat, assert people that go to parties on super-yachts. We’ve always been and will always be the same, we’re told, as change accelerates and history is flagrantly manipulated.

These images are agents of that manipulation, and so far they’ve been strikingly successful. As Chris Morris intones, as two fighting men suddenly embrace when someone waves the Union Jack, “It’s all right. Everything’s OK. It’s fine.”