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The Financial Crisis: Five Years Later

Keep Calm, Carry On, and Sell T-Shirts

Keep Calm, Carry On, and Sell T-Shirts

Photograph by 731; Graphic by Bloomberg Businessweek

Feb. 24, 2012: Antiques Roadshow discovers 20 original Keep Calm and Carry On posters

In 2008 a five-word slogan conquered Britain. Thousands of the Keep Calm and Carry On posters sold each month, and the phrase quickly migrated onto mugs, T-shirts, baby clothing. Soon, it was a jokey mantra. Country up to its neck in debt? KEEP CALM. Worried about your job? CARRY ON.

The artwork was created during World War II by the Home Office to be given out if the Nazis invaded, but few posters were ever distributed. In 2000 a book-selling couple in ­Northumberland, Stuart and Mary Manley, discovered an original. With the onset of the recession, the slogan took flight.

Academics produced theories for its popularity: It was a reference to that mythical British genetic inheritance, the stiff upper lip. Or it was an appeal to order in disorderly times. My own theory can be summed up in one word: “austalgia.” The catchphrase tapped into relief that the era of cheap credit and excess might give way to more austere times. For a couple of years, politicians hankered after “less financial engineering, more real engineering.” Borrowing from Winston Churchill, the government claimed we were “all in this together.”

The reveries were no match for reality. Rebalancing the economy was dumped for an official policy of pumping up home prices. The poster’s archness was untenable in the face of divisive spending cuts. The design has bred knockoffs. One reads, Now Panic and Freak Out, with the crown knocked upside down.

Chakrabortty is a columnist for the Guardian.

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