While national pride is a philosophy I have never found myself able to subscribe to, a sense of national shame – particularly in the five years since 2016 in the UK – has been a far more tangible concept to grasp. We live in a country where Social Injustice Warriors have the controlling hand, one where the vulnerable are shamed and blamed for the inevitable repercussions of their victimisation, and where privilege is seen as a birthright to be upheld. And it’s a world where Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” has become a horrible mantra in a year when so many were unafraid to publicly assert that the deaths of (potentially hundreds of) thousands were a price worth paying to maintain their “freedom”.
While I need to underline that the preceding paragraph is entirely my own perspective I nonetheless went into Simon Moreton’s What is Britain? feeling an obvious affinity for his quietly damning visual essay on “a particular strand of the British myth – one that is about knowing one’s place, that the order of things is natural, and that those in positions of power have our best interests at heart.” Touching and expanding on themes from his recent Ley Lines contribution The Lie of the Land Moreton uses a similar mix of vintage photos, his own art and found text to create some of the most eerily haunting sequential art you are likely to experience this year.
With its sepia-tinged, stream-of-consciousness style approach What is Britain? frames the present in the past and vice versa, underlining the historical roots of our current self-perpetuating system of inequality and reminding us that the thin veneer of civilisation is an ever superficial one. Boris Johnson is, of course, a regular target to be aimed at but others do not escape Moreton’s commentary. David Cameron, the architect of so much division via the disastrous Brexit referendum, is portrayed as a smug, porcine-corpse enthusiast under an ironic caption about the illumination of leadership, while the nationalists of UKIP are depicted in ghoul-like form with the condemnatory words “the abnormal has become the normal.”
“Nothing is new. Whatever happens has happened before” goes one line midway through What is Britain? and in many ways it encapsulates the entirety of this sobering zine. The working classes have and always will be exploited. The few have benefited off the backs of the many throughout history. Austerity is an act of oppression. And class structures exist to maintain control. None of this will be blindingly revelatory but the recurrent nature of the injustices What is Britain? portrays asks us to consider how we can break that cycle of inequity and also provides the starkest, bleakest reflection of Britain in 2021.
Moreton describes this latest work as an “imperfect polemic” but the questions it poses have an unquestionable relevance and resonance. Dreamlike/nightmarish in visual presentation, the currency of this latest Moreton offering is undeniable. Those aware of the artist’s social activism will be unsurprised to hear that proceeds from sales will go to the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, The Grenfell Foundation and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
Review by Andy Oliver