Heritage Socialism – a working definition

I'm working on a piece where the key concept is something I've called "heritage socialism", a term I like but which I've struggled to explain. So I'm going to have a go here.

According to the Wikipedians, "cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations." What has always interested me about heritage is how selective it is. Some things are considered worthy of preservation, some are considered in need or erasure. In a city like Birmingham, where I live, this value judgement is felt keenly as each generation overthrows the heritage judgement of the previous, with the 20th century currently being wiped out in favour of Victorianana.

Another interesting, though probably unintentional, effect of heritage is to detach historical artefacts from the present. In my mind this is where heritage differs from history. The purpose of history is to draw lines from the past to the present day, so we can learn something about ourselves. Heritage should do this, but in my experience it tends to "other" the past, to draw a boundary around it and set it in stone. Heritage is mummified history, preserved and unable to talk to the present.

It's notable that we have a "heritage industry" but not, as far as I'm aware, a "history industry". History is a practice and discipline. Heritage is packaged into products, ready to be consumed.


During the 20th century, Britain underwent a number of changes that can be umbrellaed by the broad term "socialism". Universal suffrage, the welfare state, nationalisation of major industries, the NHS, free education, and so on. It reached its peak in the Post War Consensus and has been in decline since the 1980s.

I became an adult in the circa 1990 and with the buffer of Thatcherism this period took on a mythical status. We were told it was a failure, and yet the results were still all around us. Hippies were derided and laughed at, but acid house had brought us the second summer of love. It was a bit confusing.

When I could vote, I couldn't vote for an actual socialist. Tony Blair made sure of that. I didn't even really know what socialism was other than something old and broken. Around 2000, in my late 20s, I was in a pub with an older friend, talking politics. He insisted my ideas and beliefs were totally socialist. I was very reticent, such was the cleansing power of the 80s.

(For what it's worth I currently identify as a radical-agnostic cosmic-scale-nihilist with socialist tendencies, but that's for another day.)

Fast forward to 2012 and Danny Boyle put the NHS centre stage at his Olympic opening ceremony. It's a statement, but I think the political nature of it washed over most of the people watching. The health service is one of those things that is beyond politics. As a country we're proud of it, especially when we look to the USA. You wouldn't have known that the NHS is a political creation were it not for the mutterings of bias from a few Thatcherite MPs. You can debate how it should be run, but no-one would dare say it should be abolished.


Heritage Socialism, then, is the presentation of a historical socialist or socialist-adjacent idea or movement, isolated from its past and future context.

For example, the story of the origin of NHS might say the idea came from the wartime 1942 Beveridge report and it was founded by the Labour government in 1948. Doctors weren't keen because they feared a pay cut, but Nye Bevan won them over. Hooray!

By making a heritage product of NHS history, the political and social context is removed and all we have left are facts. The NHS was founded: people generally thought it was a good thing, but there has been debate about how best to run it. Denuded of anything ideological it can be adopted by the most Thatcherite of free-market politicians as something they support.

The NHS is now unmoored from the ideas that created it. It has become closer to a force of nature, something inevitable, unstoppable and impossible to erase. During lockdown we protected the NHS, we thanked the NHS, but we never worried the NHS would disappear.

Privatisation of the NHS has been happening for the last few decades and will continue, but as long as the NHS logo is on everything no-one will notice, or much care. As a heritage object it is no longer a socialist project. We do not have "socialised medicine" in the UK – we have the NHS.

Turning products of socialism into heritage objects doesn't just allow the forces that opposed their creation to embrace, co-opt and subvert them. It also divorces them from the ideas that formed them, preventing us from building on those successes in the present day. These origin stories become curiosities, events from the past-as-foreign-country.

Heritage Socialism is a theme park where we can gaze in wonder at a time when people came together and build stuff that meant something, but it doesn't give us the tools to build for ourselves, only the mild frustration that we can't.

It's a bit of a problem.


This post will be updated and re-written as I get to grips with and develop this idea. Future versions will also be much shorter, I promise.

If you have thoughts on developing this, do let me know.