Intervention – “F**k the Cupcake Revolution! David Cameron, Samuel Smiles, and the Geographies of Neo-Victorian Thrift”

Alison HulmeAlison Hulme


The homemade poster was clearly visible in the window of a first floor flat as I sat on the top deck of the 185 bus that was jerking its way up Camberwell New Road in South London. It read ‘F**k the Cupcake Revolution. Don’t stay calm. Get angry!’ Retro renditions of the wartime tagline ‘keep calm and carry on’ are in plentiful supply under the current UK austerity. Mugs incite us to ‘keep calm and have a brew’; toilet lids to ‘keep calm and take a seat’; cushions to ‘keep calm and take a nap’. They draw upon a cultural memory of wartime government campaigns, such as ‘digging for victory’ or ‘make-do-and-mend’,[1] that aimed to drive down the consumptive needs of the population in order that rationing might be workable. They are part of a resurgence in the popularity of nostalgic ideas of home-making and simplicity that has seen an increase in both sales of retro kitchen appliances (typically the kitchen-aid food mixer), and the popularity of ‘crafting’ and ‘home-baking’ (typically in the form of the cupcake).

keep calm and carry onHowever, this harking back to the thrifty, head-scarfed, rosy-cheeked heroine of the home front is no coincidence. As many argue, austerity in the UK today necessarily invites echoes of that earlier post-war austerity (see Bramall 2013; Clarke and Newman 2012; Ginn 2012; Hinton and Redclift 2009). There is a wilful play upon collective memory – a politically and ideologically charged intent to connect the two eras, as recently expounded upon by Owen Hatherley (2015), and as evidenced by British PM David Cameron’s initial use of the phrase ‘age of austerity’,[2] and Chancellor George Osborne’s now famous ‘we are all in this together’ speech in 2009.[3] The connection between the two eras can even be plausibly read into the use of ‘Broken Britain’ as a catch-all description of family breakdown, worklessness, antisocial behaviour, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and welfare dependency – a trend that Tom Slater dissects in a 2012 Antipode article. The suggestion being that in the past ‘simpler’ era of wartime austerity none of these issues existed in the fiercely problematic way they do today, and if we could just bake enough cupcakes we might somehow manage to return to the spirit of those times.

When Cameron used the phrase ‘age-of-austerity’ it was by way of a comparison to an immediately preceding era that he referred to as an age of ‘irresponsibility’. In doing so he therefore connected austerity to responsibility, and it is from this mindset that the current ideologies of thrift have emerged. To be thrifty is to be responsible, and as ‘we are all in this together’ as citizens of a nation state, it is to be responsible as a national citizen, and specifically as an economic citizen. Thrift, then, in the current austerity, is presented as a pervasive mix of nationalism, economic individualism, and moralism, promoted as collective interest and a return to some kind of nostalgic ‘simplicity’ that never existed. As Clarke and Newman argue, ‘this is the collective imagery that the Coalition has tried to summon up – a nation united in the face of adversity’ (2012: 303). A nation whose support is garnered by the creation of a sense of the absolute necessity to avert disaster by everyone pulling together as if there were an external enemy on our shores – hence the success of appealing to wartime campaigns of thrift and collective effort.

Indeed, in an article for The Guardian in 2010, historian David Kynaston offered a comparative account of the two austerities, arguing that creating the political will for austerity among a post-war public was ‘a hard sell then’ but is considerably harder in the present, resulting, at best, in ‘a sort of grudging acquiescence about the condition of the global economy, the public debt and the ‘necessity’ of tough measures’ (Clarke and Newman 2012: 307). This is not least due precisely to the lack of external enemy. Wartime austerity was essentially rooted in the desire to fend off an external enemy that threatened the values perceived as ‘ours’ – collective thrift as part of the battle for democracy against Fascism. As Kiku Adatto (2011: 399) argues, the development of collective thrift through the social attempt to serve the greater good meant that saving money and/or resources was directly equated to serving the nation as part of the war effort. The current austerity has no such common external enemy. In fact, the enemy, for many, is seen as lying within – ‘the bankers’ for example.

Samuel SmilesSo, whilst Cameron attempts to galvanise the population with a strong notion of shared endeavour, in reality his version of austerity thrift is more akin to that advocated by Victorian thinkers such as Samuel Smiles – it is based on individualism. Not only does it represent a massive shift in the burden of risk from the corporation and the nation to the individual citizen, but it also requires that individual citizen to take responsibility for their own economic success even when that success is impossible for them. This is disarmingly similar to the stance that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and was typified by Samuel Smiles’ best-sellers Self-Help (1859) and Thrift (1875).[4] His emphasis on good self-management and personal propriety was irresistible to a Victorian readership keen to capitalise upon a moralist and often strangely puritanical world-view.[5] Smiles was a classic Victorian – an outcome of what Jackson Lears (1995) calls the ‘Victorian-Individualist Synthesis’ – a specific historical mix of economic growth and consumerism, the rise of the middle class, and anxiety over the impact of consumerism and luxury on civic values. Such social changes were to lead to an emphasis on self-discipline, hard work, sobriety, honesty, diligence and industry, as well as a morally inflected striving for respectability.

Smiles’ early career was focused on campaigning for parliamentary reform, but by the 1850s he had stopped seeing structural changes as a means of social advance, and begun to vociferously advocate individual self-improvement – a change in focus that could (and probably should) be read as a move to the political right. By the time he wrote Thrift, he was of the firm belief that poverty in most instances was caused by habitual improvidence on the part of workers.[6] Smiles’ concern was to make the working classes see that through prudential saving they could provide themselves with money to fall back on in hard times and therefore become more independent and less at the behest of their employers. So, whilst purportedly being concerned with the liberation of workers, Smiles understanding was one that revolved around a largely patronising and judgemental attitude towards them. Essentially, it was their fault; they were therefore, if they failed to save, undeserving poor. What’s more, their lack of individual responsibility was what determined the success or failure of a whole society and economy. Ring any bells?

The rhetoric of both Smiles and Cameron are divisive in ways that go beyond everyday judgements on household economia or TV ‘poverty porn’. Their emphasis on individual responsibility (in Cameron’s case unconvincingly disguised by the rhetoric of false collectivity) has a flattening effect on socio-economic, geographically specific, differences. This is a particularly pertinent issue considering Jamie Peck’s (2012) contention that the fact cities are disproportionately reliant on public services and are therefore the preferred political targets of austerity programs has led to ‘austerity urbanism’. Cameron’s cupcake austerity presents ‘austerity urbanism’ as a ‘fun’ movement that sees city folk engaging in enjoyable scrimping and revitalising skills such as sewing and cooking. It belies the inequalities at play even within austerity urbanism which are more akin to the differences Pugalis and Liddle (2013) highlight between austerity (disproportionately damaging for those on low incomes) and ‘spatial Keynesianism’ (regeneration); differences that carve up a city into areas more or less able to cope with austerity. It is no coincidence that the poster extolling us to ‘f**k the cupcake revolution’ appeared in an area of London that has long been socio-economically deprived. There are very few ‘lifestyle thrifters’ on the road from Vauxhall to Camberwell. The cupcake is not welcome in those parts.

ministry postersIt is not the case that taking personal economic responsibility by merrily scrimping one’s way around the city can enable those from such areas to play a part in welcoming in a new era of prosperity, nor even, necessarily, surviving day-to-day. What is required is to refuse the cozy aligning of wartime imaginings of collective spirit to the present austerity; to resist the idea that it is one’s primary individual duty to be economically viable through frugality for the sake of the nation’s economy; to disrupt what Clarke and Newman (2012: 300) call the ‘alchemy of austerity’ – the intense ideological re-working of austerity from an economic problem to a political one concerned with allocating blame and responsibility. The flattening out of extreme everyday struggles to survive under austerity by applying a broad sweep of cupcake culture must be disenabled. We are not neo-Victorians. As the poster ordered, ‘don’t keep calm, get angry’.


[1] Dig For Victory was a Ministry of Agriculture campaign – a basic guide to growing vegetable crops in the garden or allotment. Make Do and Mend was a Ministry of Information pamphlet offering useful tips to housewives on how to be both frugal and stylish in times of strict clothes rationing to create (through the use of ‘decorative patches’, unpicking old jumpers to re-knit chic alternatives, and turning men’s clothes into women’s) via the character of Mrs Sew-and-Sew.

[2] The term ‘Age-of-Austerity’ (when used to refer to current times) was popularised by British Conservative leader David Cameron in his keynote speech to the Conservative party forum in Cheltenham on 26 April 2009, in which he insisted upon the necessity of decreasing government spending.

[3] Chancellor-to-be George Osborne said in his now much-quoted speech to the Conservative Party in 2009: ‘These are the honest choices in the world in which we live and we have made them today. Anyone who tells you these choices can be avoided is not telling you the truth. We are all in this together.’

[4] Adrian Jarvis’ (1997) account of Smiles is a notable exception to most scholarship on Smiles that agrees his philosophy was individualistic and moralistic. Jarvis sees Smiles as a synthesizer of common opinions of his day and more pioneering than he is given credit for.

[5] Smiles wrote a raft of bestsellers that tapped with alacrity into the spirit of the times: Self-Help (1859); Character (1871); Thrift (1875); Duty (1880); and Life and Labour (1887).

[6] This dogmatic belief in the ability of all to save, also impacted upon his attitude towards capitalists: a capitalist, according to Smiles, was simply someone ‘who does not spend all that is earned by work’. This description likely came from his belief that thrift was not a natural instinct, so the practice of it was admirable. Note how, true to his times, Smiles is caught up with what is ‘natural’ as opposed to the likely outcomes of material conditions. His view was that all workers could (and should) become capitalists if they saved some of their earnings, i.e. that all salaries enable saving.


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