‘We’re all in this together!’: Big Society Themes in Downton Abbey

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Abstract

It’s no coincidence that Downton Abbey aired at a time when the political environment in the UK was dominated by the first coalition government since the Second World War, formed in an uneasy alliance between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. As Atkinson, Robert & Savage (2013) point out, this was a Government committed to cutting public spending, reducing the deficit and encouraging self-reliance and social responsibility, underpinned somewhat controversially, by a “rhetoric of fairness” (ibid.: 14). In a manifesto subtitled “Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility” (“The Coalition: Our Programme for Government”, Cabinet Office 2010), social mobility; self-sufficiency and David Cameron’s notions of a “Big Society” would take precedence: You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society. (David Cameron, 2010[online]) It is against this backdrop that we should contextualize Downton Abbey. The series presents a lavish portrayal of Edwardian England in which competing discourses of affluence and austerity are explored through a ‘structured narrative of modernity’ (Nava, 1996: 2). Longstanding debates about the heritage industry (see for example, Hewison, 1987; Higson, 1996; Monk, 2002) recognize the country house setting as a familiar trope in heritage drama in which the strictures of class and social mobility are navigated and exposed. Although some critics would dismiss the series as a nostalgic fantasy, others have recognised its deeper significance. Despite the consensus that the series often articulates contemporary anxieties, critical accounts tend to stop short of a detailed engagement with the political rhetoric of the Coalition. This chapter therefore proposes the first detailed examination of the series in light of coalition political philosophy and policy during that pivotal 5 year period. Extending the work of Bryne, Tincknell (2013) and Nesbitt in particular, I discuss the various ways in which the series intersects with and frames, contemporary public debates in the UK about spending, consumption, equality, welfare provision and personal responsibility.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExploring Downton Abbey
EditorsScott Stoddart
PublisherMcFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
ISBN (Print)0786476885, 9780786476886
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2018

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