Part One of Otto English’s take on the 2010s, exploring how Britain stumbled from the financial crisis into the euphoria of the London Olympic Games – only for a repressed and angry populism to rear its head.
All in this Together
Here’s a peculiar thing. This last decade still doesn’t have a name. The one that preceded it was known as the “Noughties”. The one that is to come is the “Twenties”. But, as this époque drags to its bitter and ignominious end, it remains – for the moment at least – nameless.
Since posing this thought on Twitter, I have been inundated with apt suggestions including the “Inbetweenies”, the “Age of Populism”, the “Great Shitstorm” and the “Blunder Years”. All great monikers, yes, but – like it or not, and much as it pains me – it seems inevitable that this age will come to be known as the “Brexit Years”.
Time is not neat, of course. Decades don’t fit snugly within the parameters of their assigned 10 year slots and, in fact, this era began not in 2010 but in September 2008 when the global financial markets collapsed. That event spelled the end of New Labour and set the course for all that was to follow.
David Cameron and the Coalition Government came to power in May 2010 – less on a wave of popular sentiment and more as a reaction to the financial crisis. Gordon Brown may have saved the country from the worst of the effects of the meltdown, but nobody back then was in the mood to credit him with it. Blame was laid squarely at the door of Brown’s Eeyorish leadership.
This being the X Factor age, Cameron seemed to tick a lot of boxes. He had nice hair. He was the youngest Prime Minister for more than 200 years. He knew which buttons to press. He spoke about the environment, hugged hoodies and liked to go jogging when the cameras were around. In truth, Cameron won power because, under the UK’s creaky first past the post electoral system, he was the only alternative to Brown. He was not a popular figure and his fan club didn’t extend much beyond the limitations of his sofa.
As the decade began, the new Coalition Government’s only real success was to sell the notion that austerity was a necessary evil and that the problems Britain faced had all been the fault of Labour. The cut-backs were a bitter pill that needed to be swallowed, to cure the economy of the curse of socialism and unleash Britain’s potential once more. The then Chancellor, George Osborne, summoned the Blitz spirit and claimed that we were “all in this together”. It was a lie. Changes to tax and welfare hit the poor hardest along with cuts to vital services. Over the course of the 2010s, the poorest fifth in society have seen their incomes shrink by a tenth, while the richest fifth simply got richer.
Beyond making life harder for the poor, Cameron’s achievements in office were manifestly limited. His was a plate-spinning Government, not a bold new departure. Rather than lead, he dithered and held lazy and reckless referendums.
The first of these was the plebiscite on electoral reform – whether the UK should move to an ‘alternative vote’ voting system – in 2011, held to placate his Liberal Democrat partners. Cameron hired Matthew Elliott, later of Vote Leave fame, to head up the ‘No to AV’ campaign and, by convincing voters that the £250 million it would cost to implement could be better spent on the NHS, reform (for what it was worth) was voted down. Sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?
On the face of things, and certainly if you read the Daily Telegraph, you might have been led to believe that life was improving.
Unemployment seemed to be going down, although this was only because Cameron and Osborne were propagating a gig economy filled with low paid McJobs. It looked like everyone was gainfully employed even when they weren’t. People didn’t feel they were doing well or that they were better off even as the country tightened its belt.
Things weren’t much better on the foreign policy front. In 2011, Cameron embroiled the UK in an ill-advised NATO-led military operation to topple Muammar al-Gaddafi and, once the Libyan leader was dead, dusted his hands of further involvement even as that country descended into chaos. This was to become his defining characteristic.
what the papers don’t say
Cameron’s one progressive achievement in his first term was to introduce the long overdue Same Sex Marriages Act in 2013, but that was – but that was as much down to a shift in public opinion and the efforts of campaigners as his willingness to back it.
In short, the Britain of the early 2010s felt semi-detached. It was as if the nation was treading water. The Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011 did little to lift the national mood and the riots that same summer merely distilled the unease.
But then, finally, as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year played out, something good happened.
Leftie Multicultural Crap
On the night of 27 July 2012, 25 million British people settled down to watch the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games. This, along with the closing event, was to be the biggest British act of collective television viewing in the decade and the largest global audience of any television event in history.
As ‘James Bond’ and ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ parachuted into the stadium, the country projected an image of itself to billions of people around the globe that seemed uplifting. There was a sudden and palpable injection of feel-goodery and it took many by surprise. The Britain projected onto our television screens was a confident, attractive, modern, good-natured country that looked at ease with itself.
The London Olympics was a legacy of the New Labour years. A hidden track set to play long after Blair had left office. A reminder of what we could be. And, that night, as performers danced their way through Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder, millions of Britons were willing once more to buy in. It felt like a return to the optimism of 1997 and a reminder that it could actually feel good to be British.
Sadly, it was not to last. Indeed, something else happened that night, something that in many ways could be seen as a turning point in the culture war that was to follow. For sitting at home, watching his television, was Aidan Burley, Conservative MP for Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, who was feeling very pissed off indeed. As actors celebrated Britain’s multicultural heritage and the arrival of the Empire Windrush at the Tilbury docks in 1948, Burley began to tweet his displeasure.
“The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state,” he wrote. “Welfare tribute next?” A moment later he added: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back the red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”
A row erupted and Burley, already reeling from the revelation that he had attended a Nazi-themed stag party, agreed that he would not re-contest his seat. It seemed wholly appropriate at the time but, looking back now, this feels like one of those moments in time where everything pivots.
Burley’s tweet row set optimistic, hopeful, Isles of Wonder Britain against a nastier, mean-spirited, backward-looking place. Little did we know then that Burley’s Britain was to win out in the end.
Acceptable to be Unacceptable
In the years that followed 2012, the mood shifted and the UK plunged into a catastrophic orgy of populism and irrationality.
Back then, the idea that a Member of Parliament could take to social media on the night of this national revelry and tweet intolerant nonsense to his followers was unacceptable. Nowadays, few would bat an eyelid.
‘Isles of Wonder Britain’ has gone and the Spitfire nationalists have ended the decade with a win. It has become acceptable to be unacceptable again and a deluded Britain – drunk on the cocktail of nationalism and Brexit – is stumbling forward into the 2020s.
Perhaps, with hindsight, it was all to be expected. Research, stretching back to 1870 shows that far-right parties and populist politics are always the great beneficiaries of any financial crisis. 2008 lit the fuse. The narrative that the ruling elites had engineered things, that people have had enough of intellectuals and progressive ideas has taken hold. Values such as honesty, truth and pragmatism have been sacrificed at the altar of nationalism and populist hysteria.
How that happened and where it has left us will be the subject of Part Two.