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International Affairs, Ruosi Wang

Tradition and Modernity in the UK

The UK is known for its rich heritage and traditions as well as its liberal modernity. Although different, tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive and have been reconciled by the UK to create a unique portrayal of its national identity. There are countless examples to cite that show this balance, but this post will focus primarily on the UK’s tourism industry, architectural styles, diverse demographics, and the way Britain portrayed herself in the London 2012 Olympics.  Through these examples we will find that the UK is still holding onto its traditional past, but at the same time, also venturing into a modern era of new traditions.

Iconic images such as the red telephone box and double decker buses have become apart of British identity in popular media. Their preservation is mainly for tourist purposes, which reflects the UK’s desire to preserve appreciation for tradition and heritage. This is especially noticeable in the romanticized portrayal of the countryside.  Images of rural stone cottages, virgin landscapes, and razing animals are also widely seen on advertisements for countryside tourism in the UK. These portrayals reminisce a peaceful agrarian presence and is a refreshing contrast to the fast-paced centers for urbanization in the modern era. For example, STA Travel, Inc., a UK company, advertises tours of the “English countryside” alongside trips to “traditional English pubs”, “traditional guesthouse[s]”, and “authentic local produce” in their 2014 edition of Europe magazine. The magazine’s frequent use of the adjectives “traditional” and “authentic” in its tour descriptions and photo captions was a clear hint that the UK’s national identity has not detached itself from its less metropolitan beginnings.

Away from the countryside, traces of tradition and heritage are seen in the UK’s preservation of dated architectural styles. The BBC describes the House of Parliament’s design as, “a good example of the period’s confused love affair with the past, it was summed up earlier this century as classic in inspiration, Gothic in detailing, and carried out with scrupulous adherence to the architectural detail of the Tutor period.” The exact origin of the building’s design is a conglomerate of the various styles that echoes Britain’s past traditions and heritage. Although the parliament building does not cohere to a specific era’s stylistic tradition, its design starkly contrasts contemporary architecture such as the Lloyd’s building and the Gherkin. The presentation of the parliament building purposely sought to commemorate the past through its design. Photos of the UK parliament building are widely seen in the media and have been closely associated with not only the governing institution that works within its confines, but also the national identity of the entire country. The building’s presentation suggests that the country’s heritage still holds an important part in their political and cultural identity.

Despite the UK’s advertisements for traditional countryside vacations and appreciation of traditional architectural styles, there also exists a concurrent movement of rapid modernization in the way the UK presents itself to the rest of the world. I noticed that during the few weeks preceding the lunar New Year, advertisements depicting festivities in Soho’s Chinatown in Central London displayed international influences in the area’s architecture as well as businesses. Bilingual street signs and red lanterns were only two of the many things that reflected London’s multicultural demographics. TimeOut.com, a popular website for comprehensive city listings and travel guides, has a list of London’s top 50 restaurants which range from Middle eastern and Indian to Greek and Italian restaurants. London’s international demographic resembles the increasingly multi-cultural trend in many cities around the globe. The UK’s modern urban population is portrayed to be eccentrically multicultural and vastly different from its Anglo-Saxon dominant past. The diversity in the UK suggests that the country is progressing towards a multicultural national identity in the modern era.

Modernity is never without technological innovation and London’s coverage of its 2012 Olympic Park featured impressive presentations of the ingenuity of contemporary architects. The BBC dedicated extensive coverage of the project’s architectural feats that differed greatly with the country’s traditional styles. Aerial views and angled close-up shots entertained every viewer with Britain’s modernity. The Olympic stadium’s time-lapse sequence, showing the building process from the beginning to completion, can still be found on the BBC’s website.  In a way, it represents the UK’s desire to be presented as a modernized nation. The Olympic opening ceremony displayed a juxtaposition of Britain’s modernity and tradition in a way that surprised even the most uninterested viewer.  Tom Fordyce, a chief sports writer at Olympic Park during the 2012 Olympics wrote, “It was when the Queen sky-dived out of a helicopter with James Bond in her slipstream that you thought: hang on, this opening ceremony isn’t quite like the other ones I remember.”  The queen, symbolizing tradition, clashed with the modernity of the theatrical spectacle, but at the same time, was able to reconcile British heritage with modernity.

As a whole, the UK’s national identity has neither favored tradition nor modernity. It is influenced by both its past traditions and its present innovations. The two in combination has shaped the way the UK presents itself to the rest of the world. The UK’s rich cultural heritage and its modernity are balanced in a way that allows people to see where the nation has been and where it is headed. Moreover, we can see the UK as a country that values its history and is also capable of adapting to a more modern national identity.

-Ruosi Wang



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February 2014
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