Exeter, Devon UK • May 27, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Comment Keep Calm and Carry On?

Keep Calm and Carry On?

Aaron Loose discusses the government's new message to 'Stay Alert' and the implications behind using such slogans to guide the Coronavirus pandemic
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Keep Calm and Carry On?

Image: helloimnik via Unsplash

Following the new advice to ‘Stay Alert’, Aaron Loose examines the government’s use of slogans throughout the Coronavirus pandemic

Ask any Westminster journalist to smash out a weekend paper column about the essence of Britishness and you can put good money on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster reappearing somewhere, like a staggering zombie from Dawn of the Dead that simply refuses to die. 

It’s a fascinating late career comeback for a slogan that never saw much action during the Second World War itself. Drawn up by the Ministry of Information in 1939, the original Keep Calm and Carry On poster was rarely displayed in public at all. It wasn’t until 2000, when Stuart Manley, a Northumberland bookshop owner, unearthed a crumpled copy that the now virulent poster became a fixture for provincial tearooms. 

Slogans, then, are resilient things. Look back to the terse catchphrase Dominic Cummings devised during the last election, “Get Brexit Done”. A candidate’s slogan is more than a jingle. It represents a political vision of a country’s identity.

This is why Boris Johnson’s disastrous national address on 11 May was so horribly worrying. Nevermind that the sitting Prime Minister can hardly blurt out a coherent message on a pre-recorded tape. The new slogan – Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives- tells us all we need to know about the condition of an individualist Britain.

“The government’s priorities were as transparent as the sheet glass windows on a Canary Wharf skyscraper: profits matter more than human lives.”

During a thirteen minute address, Johnson told us that people who cannot work from home, “those in construction or manufacturing”, were now “actively encouraged” to go to work. Using public transport, however, was not a good thing at all.

That’s easy if you are in the 54 per cent of London homeowners who can access a car. Not as simple if you are in the group who earn less than £70k – the overwhelming majority in the UK – and need to travel twenty miles to fulfil a low-paid labouring job.

Stay Alert did get one message across, although it is doubtful that it was the nation-unifying call the Tories wanted. The government’s priorities were as transparent as the sheet glass windows on a Canary Wharf skyscraper: profits matter more than human lives.

Stay Alert is an individualisation of responsibility. When asked by the BBC whether people could meet their family members outdoors, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, advised us to “use our common sense”. Considering that a recent YouGov poll found over 91 per cent of a 6,500 sample preferred the clarity of the old advice to stay home, Raab may want to go back to the focus group.

“In truth, the message of Anti-Nazi war memorabilia is not very different from Stay Alert at all. They tell us, should the very worst arrive, that the British people are on their own.”

Slogans are always tied to the nation. In that sense, Keep Calm and Carry On represents an ideal image of Britishness. As Paul Gilroy writes, the national obsession over the Second World War is directed by “the need to get back to the place or moment before the country lost its moral and cultural bearings”. This nostalgia is misplaced. In truth, the message of Anti-Nazi war memorabilia is not very different from Stay Alert at all. They tell us, should the very worst arrive, that the British people are on their own.  

Aerial bombardments and global pandemics cannot be compared. But it is striking how, in periods of great fear, that a Conservative government never fails to delegate responsibility to the public. “Keep Calm” and “Stay Alert” are vague and offer no tangible strategy. What they do offer is a glance into the true face of a ruling class who are keen to avoid accountability at all costs. 

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